Bruce A. Smith
It had been quite a week. The start of our second week at Unity seemed like the anniversary of a marriage or a divorce; something big and something awesome. Perhaps in celebration we all made it to breakfast at 7:30 a.m., even Ryan who liked to sleep late even more than me.
In the middle of another breakfast of bacon and eggs, Terry stood up.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys, I wanted to let you know that I’m leaving Unity House in order to accompany Adam’s body to Westover and meet with his family there. I’ll be accompanying them and the body to New Hampshire for his burial there, so I don’t know when I will be back.
“Dave,” she said looking straight at me, “you’re now in charge here at Unity House.
“Boys,” she continued, “I want you to follow Dave’s instructions like you would if they were coming from me.
“Dave, Jack can be your second-in-command. He knows the boys and he knows how to get things done around here. You guys,” she said sweeping her hand to include everyone “will be okay. I know that. I just need to leave you now,” and with that she began to shake hands goodbye with all the guys and staff.
She had known Ryan for almost two years; and well, it was tough for both of them to say farewell. Ryan leaned into her and gave her the stiffest, but most earnest hug I have ever seen in my life. Terry started crying and Ryan didn’t know what to, so Jack stood up and saved the day.
“Let’s all give a cheer for Terry. One, two, three, hip, hip, hor-ray. One, two, three…” We all joined in and gave “The Man in a skirt” a warm send off. Now I was “The Man,” and I was scared.
I walked out with her to the loading dock and helped her put on a rad suit.
“Boss, I wish you weren’t leaving.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine, Dave. Really.”
“I’ve never been in charge of anything before, Terry. I’m a little scared.”
“Oh, Dave,” she said with a faint, hazy twinkle from deep within grey, sad eyes, “ever since you first walked into this place you’ve acted like your poop didn’t stink. Now, you’re gonna find out what you’re made of. But…,” she paused, “let me tell you one thing. No, two. First, you’re the best therapist I’ve ever worked with. You’re great for these boys. But, ah….,” she paused again, “sometimes, you can be …”
“An arrogant son of a bitch who acts like he knows everything and is constantly telling you how to do your job?”
“Yes.” Terry smiled a little and gave me a hug.
“How come it feels like you’re not coming back, Terry?”
“Maybe because I’m not.”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. We’ll see what the future holds.”
“Does your husband know about Adam?”
“No, and he’s never gonna find out, so you keep your friggin’ mouth shut for a change, will you? Although you’ve had a little practice doing that recently, haven’t you, eh?
She tapped me on the chest with her knuckles and winked. I smile now, thinking about how I didn’t say anything about Adam and Terry for a long time, but now, here I am writing about it for all the world to see.
Many months later, when I showed Terry the manuscript of the book you are now reading, after we had been laid off due to the state budget cuts, the transfer of Federal funds away from social programs into tax rebates, Homeland Security, and the Global War on Terrorism. After Unity was boarded up and all the guys shipped off to emergency foster placements throughout the country; after Unity House said ‘no more’ to the troubled youth of Worcester for the first time in over a hundred years – after all of that, when Terry finished reading the manuscript in her tiny, new apartment in Rockport, the one she had moved into after her divorce, she said just one thing, “Tell it all, Dave. Tell every goddamn word of it.”
But back at Unity, Terry finished Velcro-ing her rad suit and climbed aboard the deuce and a half that was taking Adam’s body to the mortuary depot at Westover along with another fifty deceased members of the Dorchester Hill neighborhood.
When I got back to the kitchen, I was surprised to see two former residents, Roberto and Tony, eating with our guys. Mass National Guard had just finished the neighborhood search south of Heywood, and Roberto and Tony and four other foster care teenagers were part of that last round-up. Unbeknownst to DSHS, they had been living in a non-parented home and living on canned tuna stolen from grocery stores and filched pizza from a joint where one of the guys worked for a couple hours a day. Apparently, they were able to pay the rent and utilities by selling pot to all of South Worcester. They also did a great job keeping the world from finding out that Roberto’s mother, the nominal owner of the house, had drifted off to Mexico or LA but no one was quite sure. These street kids had been living in their version of teenage nirvana for the past 10 months, a few blocks away from Unity House and the searing attention of a dozen of social workers. Now they were hungry, dirty and sick.
Roberto had mild rad disease, but worse he had pneumonia. Regardless, Deon was glad to see him as they had shared a foster placement a year before. It was an especially important family reunion for Deon, and he had his arm wrapped around his big foster brother’s shoulder, pneumonia or not.
Tony had severe rad burns on his hands and face. Triage had just finished bandaging him up and the smell of bacon was too much for him to endure any more treatment, so he joined breakfast. It was ol’ home week at Unity House.
The other four teens were in worse shape and one died that day. The other three stayed with us for quite some time with severe pulmonary bleeding from the radiation, but they pulled through eventually, just in time for one of them, Nick, to go to jail on cocaine trafficking charges.
The other two, Rick and Trevor, got rolled into the Unity House census until we closed, and then DSHS found them placements.
The big job of the day was to conduct healing sessions for the patients down in the basement who had been hearing our gospel choir and prayer group the past few nights. That was “job one” right after breakfast and it was all Karen. In fact, she got two nurses from Montoya’s group to join, plus the Captain himself sang a song or two. One nurse, Cindy, had a great soprano voice and we rocked.
Our basement was approximately twenty-five feet wide and sixty-feet long. We had fifty cots wedged in there, patients elbow to elbow with two aisle ways lengthwise to attend each patient at either their feet or head.
Karen and Cindy, along with Naleef and Deon, were our official choir and stood at the east end of the room and surrounded the two sickest patients, two women who were on IV drip and getting prepped for transport to UMass-Amherst.
Jack, Ben, the two Kevin’s, Ryan, Angie, Jo and her daughters, the other Army nurse, and I spread out down the aisle ways.
“On the Rivers of Babylon, where we sat down…” Karen started us off, and we winged it from there.
I had one hand on an elderly patient and another hand on his neighbor across the aisle. The rest of our group did the same – one hand on one person and the other on another patient. We had a lot more patients than hands, so we had to switch off and move up and down the aisle so that every patient got equal time.
My older patient started to sing along with us. Roberto came over next to him, and even though he didn’t sing and had a mask over his mouth to keep him from spreading his pneumonia, he placed both his hands on the old guy’s shoulders and rocked him back-and-forth to the rhythm of the music, moving the old guy gently in his bedding like he was a big roll of gospel dough.
The old guy loved it.
Tony had a stick schmooshed between his bandaged hands and beat a rhythm on the wall-mounted fire extinguisher, giving us high pitched, ting-tinga-ting percussion. It was beautiful.
About twenty were in a coma or near one, and not expected to survive. The others were getting over their rad sickness. So, we were seeing the second phase of radiation poisoning, namely, the opportunistic infections like Roberto’s pneumonia. We were turning into a medical ward and less of an emergency rad unit.
The high point for me was when Karen, after a few songs and a few words to Jesus, asked Deon and Naleef to share their thoughts.
Deon, as expected, was first.
“I’d just like to say that I want you all to get well. I know what it’s like to be sick in a place you don’t know and don’t have your mother around, or anyone else that you know or who really cares about you. I know I’m not your kid, my name is Deon Mack, but I care about you and I hope you feel better.” He paused and we thought Naleef would step forward and say something, but Deon took another breath and found more to say.
“I don’t know where my mother is or even if she’s alive, and I don’t think that’s right. Like I said, I’m not your kid, but I’ve been on my own a lot and I know it’s important to have a family, and today a miracle happened to me because my brother Roberto showed up, just like that, ‘whoosh,’ and I didn’t even know he was coming or where he was. So, if good things can happen to me, I know good things can happen to you. You just gotta believe. So, I want you to believe. I’m done; Naleef, you can speak now.”
Naleef, meek, soft, and slightly twisted took a step forward.
“My name is Naleef Sa, and I stay here until my mother can take me back. I want to say I’m glad you are here, and I hope you are all feeling better, and I want to thank Sergeant Karen for singing so nice, and I hope you liked hearing her, too. I want to say something to Jesus, too.
“Dear, Jesus, I know you were born in a barn with a lot of animals around and it probably smelled a lot, too. I think where you were born looked a lot like our basement here, with a lot of smelly old beds next to each other. So, maybe you know what we’re going through down here, and so maybe you can help these people, too. Amen.”
“Amen,” we all called out, including a few of the patients like the old guy by my side who reached up to me and tried to say something.
I leaned over and heard him whisper hoarsely, “These kids could be preachers someday,” and then he lay back down, smiling.
I winked and nodded.
After our healing and prayer service, we lingered with the patients. Eventually Jack went upstairs and brought down a coffee maker and we had a social for the rest of the morning. Some of the patients were able to sit up and were only too happy to have Naleef, or Deon, or one of the guys sit down with them and chat. The guys were a little uncomfortable with the open-endedness of these social doings, so I asked Kevin P to get us writing stuff and the guys were all assigned to find out each patient’s personal needs, like whom to contact, where they lived, clothes, personal items, or toiletries they might need from the their house. I knew most of these folks would be transferred in the next day or two, but I wanted to keep the guys busy and many of the requests were relevant, like getting heart medication or eyeglasses.
Jack and Ben used the Gators to take the two Kevins on these community runs. When Jack came back from his last run, I had a new assignment for him.
We were getting visits from lots of healthy neighbors, most of whom were newly arrived folks back into the neighborhood and who either wanted to volunteer, needed a hot shower or sought information about loved ones whom they couldn’t find. I asked Jack to handle all that.
Jo, as the only regular resident who actually lived on Dorchester Hill besides Karen, pitched in with Jack. He coordinated with the Army on the community’s use of the military’s shower and toilet facilities, which were in big demand.
The big problem was making sure the neighbors didn’t track in irradiated dust. This was a major problem and shifted the Army’s priority from restoration of the business district to that of getting the neighborhood functioning so that people could live in their own homes rather than depend on a centralized facility like Unity House.
To protect ourselves, we developed some stringent protocols: we insisted community people shower twice; first, they rinsed themselves with their clothes on in another new Mylar tent in order to wash the dust out the clothes they had walked to Unity House in. Then, they took a regular shower and afterward changed into a second set of clothes inside our secured trailer.
Then when they got home, they could change into a third set of clean clothes inside their house, dry out the first set, and use the second set as their next outdoor walkabout clothes.
We even rigged a signal booster for a community TV.
First, we cleared out the south hallway and put all those supplies in the SYSCO truck. Then the hallway became our TV lounge for an hour in the morning, two in the afternoon and two in the evening. To enter Unity House and watch TV, you needed to bring a clean set of uncontaminated clothes to change into and wear inside the house.
Our TV sessions crowded the hallway and made them impassable at times. Some busy Army folk got miffed at having to step over people who looked like couch potatoes, but I saw it as vital community service. The TV was a distraction and a stress reliever.
Even more importantly, though, our hallway TV lounge became a focal point for people to come together and talk, grieve, and rebuild their lives. Watching soaps was the least of it.
By mid-day, Specialist Mulhearn and his engineering teams finished up repairing all the blown circuits and fried wires for the fire and police departments. With heat and refrigeration, Worcester City PD and FD began to get serious food deliveries from the Red Cross and FEMA and they in turn got busy with food distribution to the folks returning to their homes.
Along those lines, Mulhearn and his engineering crews now had to focus full-time on restoring the utilities to the homes of Union Hill. FEMA had authorized a return to the zone on Day 14, and we needed to get things ready.
However, many folks were already in their homes as far as I could tell. Just looking at the queue lines for showers told me that.
By nightfall, half the homes had electricity. There were still glitches in the system even though all the lines ran underground, so somehow there were enough places of vulnerable exposure where the shock waves or radiation had compromised a circuit or busted a conduit.
Fortunately, most homes had gas and water, and some had phone service. The lack of electricity was the big problem though, since besides the lights, electricity ran the hot water heaters, stove igniters, and refrigeration.
Although Unity still didn’t have utilities from the city, and ran off the Army generators, the rest of Dorchester Hill was actually getting into good shape compared to most of the zone. Those neighborhoods with exposed electrical lines, especially everyone south of us, were in deep doo-doo and were going to need weeks if not months to rebuild. Many areas had to start from scratch with new poles, lines, and connections, and in the worst places reconstruction wouldn’t begin until the rubble was cleared, and that had to wait until the radiation danger was gone.
At sundown on my first day as “Boss,” I put on a rad suit and climbed to the top of Dorchester Hill. Viewing the Eastside below me, I saw both the chaos and the rebuild.
DPW had a line of flat-bed trucks winching up wrecked vehicles off Grafton and Massasoit in the south, and Hamilton and Plantation in the north.
Other crews with articulated back-hoes hoisted up trees, aluminum siding, roofing material, and domestic wreckage littering the roadways. Seeing rad-suited construction workers made me think I was in a sci-fi movie about a construction site on the moon.
One guy, taking a break, looked up and saw me. In my rad suit I waved, and he in his returned the greeting. We will survive. Life goes on.
That night we had another healing session in the basement. This time we had plenty of hands. Twenty people from the neighborhood joined us to work on their loved ones.
Afterwards, we had a special Men and Women of Honor session with Trey and Willy. They didn’t look good. The Army wanted to evac them to UMass-Amherst and undergo a bone marrow transfusion, but Dr. Kim told me it was a thousand to one shot, so I nixed it. I thought about what TT had said a few days back: ‘We’re their people, their family. This is their home.”
I told the staff: if Willy and Trey were going to die, I didn’t want them dying in the arms of strangers where their family was right here.
Trey was now on a ventilator and supplemental oxygen. There was a big green oxygen tank next to his bed and a little plastic tube stuck into each nostril.
Willy had an IV drip because he wasn’t getting nutrition; his GI system and kidneys were shutting down.
It seemed all we could do was watch them die; but even in that I saw hope for I knew we could prepare them for their next journey. I got right to the point.
“Men and Women of Honor of Unity House, this is our darkest hour. Trey and Willy are failing physically and that is not easy for us to see. Although their bodies are falling apart, we have not failed, the doctors have not failed, and Willy and Trey have not failed. All that is happening is a change. I think it is fair to say that we have worked hard and helped Willy and Trey find a measure of health. Now, we need to expand our work and help them prepare for a change of life. I want us all to say a few words about how we understand this change, where we think a soul or our spirit goes when the body dies. I’d like us all to speak to that. I’ll start.
“This is what I think about death and what is in my heart right now. First, I want to thank Trey and Willy for being in my life, for giving me a chance to be their therapist. I have grown as a person by being in a position to try to make their life better. I am honored if anything that I taught them has improved their life.
“We are all on a journey. I am on mine; you all are on yours, and Willy and Trey are on theirs. I don’t know what theirs is exactly; only they know what that journey is. I think that is why we are here in the first place, for our spirit to have its journey, for our spirit to experience a physical life and all our encountered with each other.
“I don’t think that our souls ever die. I don’t think that our spirit ever dies. I think that we are eternal, divine beings. We will live eternally, whether it’s in a heaven like the Christians say, or in many other wonderful places where the soul can live and find joy, and love and new things to wonder at, and feel close to God. To be part of God. To be of God.
“Willy and Trey sure look like they are leaving us. Whatever pain they might be in I hope it is to a purposeful good. To what end I may be able to lessen their pain, I hope I find the way.
“If their soul says it is time to go, I hope they go to a righteous place and find the love of a mother and father, a love they had so little of here. Surely, it is not too much to ask of God that Willy and Trey find someone to really care for them, hold them close every night, and be there in a way that they can really count on. We all know that Trey and Willy had very little of that. Many of us in this room have suffered along those lines as well. Whatever the purposeful good is of their experience, I leave it to them to discuss with their spirit, and to resolve with God. I do not judge their mothers or fathers, and I don’t judge Willy or Trey. I just know they have longed for something more than what they had in this life, and I hope they find it. I hope they find a solid, beautiful wisdom as to what the purpose of this lifetime was for them, and I hope they find love. Real love, the kind of love a father, like God the Father, God the Mother has for all of his, all of her, children.
“I can’t think of anything else to say. Who’s next?” After a moment of silence Jack spoke.
“I was raised a Catholic and I can tell you what I was taught, and I guess what I believe. I believe we go to Heaven or Hell when we die and that God makes the decision. I don’t know what decision He will make on Willy or Trey. I do know that Willy and Trey, even with all their faults were good kids. I know I trusted Trey, and I think he deserved a better shot at life than what he got. Willy, I didn’t know him as well as I’ve known Trey, but I know that once you got past the cocky stuff, he was a decent kid. I hope they get better, but in case they don’t, I hope, well, I guess I hope they go to Heaven. I hope to see them there myself someday.”
A quiet murmur arose from those contemplating Jack’s words. From the sound of it I think they saw themselves in Heaven with Jack, Willy and Trey. In the lull that followed, Kevin P spoke.
“I’ve known Trey ever since I got here and he’s a stand-up guy. Sure, he was heavy with the bud, but that was just his thing. He was tight as far as I was concerned, and he never talked bad to me, so I hope he gets better.
“As for heaven and stuff,” KP continued, “I dunno. I was raised Catholic, like Jack, and I guess God will know what to do. But, like I said, Trey was cool and I wish he would get better. I don’t like seeing him like this. I’m done. Goodbye.” Even though Kevin P said goodbye he stayed in the room. It was more like his way of saying, “I’m done talking about my feelings.”
Naleef was next.
“I liked Trey, and he was my best friend. He never talked bad to me either, like Kevin P said. Jesus, why are you making Trey sick? Can’t you do anything?
“And Willy, too,” Naleef continued. “Willy would play legos with me. I liked that and I hope he goes to heaven too, if he dies. But I hope he doesn’t die.”
Karen spoke next.
“I would like to adopt Trey if I could. I’d like to pick him up, hold him tight, and just squeeze the sickness out of him. But I can’t, so, I leave it in God’s hands. I just ask for an understanding of why this has to happen. I ask Jesus to help me with the pain in my heart and the tears that are gonna come any minute.”
Mine were already flowing.
Ben was ready and spoke without hesitation, firmly holding both ends of his new yellow scarf. He looked like a preacher, or a mayor about to give a speech.
“I knew Trey a little, but I kinda knew Willy better because he and I shot hoops together a lot. He’s pretty good, especially for a little guy. Like Jack said, once you got to know him you could see he was a decent guy. Trey too, is solid. As for heaven and hell, I dunno. I was raised in pretty strict Baptist ways, but I kind of got turned off to it all. I guess there’s a heaven, I really don’t know. I guess I hope there’s a heaven, I mean, what’s it all about if there isn’t, right?”
Tracey was next. She started singing in the thin, soft voice of a ten-year old who believes in goodness with all her heart.
“Somewhere there’s a river, looking for a stream. And somewhere there’s a dreamer, looking for a dream.
“And somewhere there’s a drifter, trying to find his way. And somewhere someone’s waitin,’ to hear somebody say:
“I believe in you, I can’t even count the ways. And I believe in you, and all I want to do, is help you believe in you.
“That’s all I want to say, that I believe in you.” It sounded cryptic, but we knew that she knew what she meant.
Her mother, Jo, followed.
“First, I want to thank you all for saving my two little girls. You were here for them when I couldn’t be. I’ll never forget that. And now, two of those who watched out for my little ones are on death’s door. It ain’t right, somehow. I don’t understand, exactly, but I want to. That’s all I want to say, except I hope Trey and Willy get better, and if they don’t, I hope God forgives them anything bad they may have done. I just want to say, ah, I hope God remembers that these two boys helped save my daughters and, well, I think that counts for a lot. So, even if Willy and Trey did a lot of bad things, I think God should overlook a lot of that stuff. I’m not really making sense, I know, but…, well, I know I’m not saying things right, but I, well…. Trey and Willy, well, I love you.”
After that, Jo was crying, and I was a basket case.
We had a moment of tears, and a quiet appreciation for the admission of love.
Then, Kevin A spoke.
“I don’t know for sure if there’s a heaven or a hell, or like the Catholics say, a purgatory, but I do believe in God and I know God has good places for us to go when we die. I think Trey and Willy were okay and I hope they go to heaven, but I hope more that they get better. I think we have spirits and souls, and I know that we have a lot inside. There’s like a whole world inside each one of us. And I hope Willy and Trey get better, but if they don’t, well, I hope they go to heaven.”
Monica was next. “The song Tracey sang is my favorite song, too, from the TV show, ‘Touched by an Angel.’ I don’t know exactly what it takes to be an angel, but I think, yeah, I think, I’m really sure that my Granny Lou is an angel because I hear her talking to me when I sleep. Yeah, I know you think I’m weird for saying that, and I’ve never told anyone that before except for my best friend Taisha, last year, but it’s true. I swear it’s true.
“Well, anyway, I think Trey and Willy, if they die could be angels, because they were like angels here already, when like, as my mother said, they helped me and my sister when no one else was around. I think that’s what angels do. Like, maybe that’s why God is taking them now, maybe their work is done. Maybe it’s time for them to go back and be with God in heaven, like as angels, real angels again, not just the angels here as, well, ya know, humans, like they are now.
“Anyway, thank you Willy, for helping me and my sister.” With that she quickly leaned over and kissed him on his forehead, and then bounced right back.
“And Trey, too,” she said across the room in Trey’s direction. “I love you too, Trey.
“And, oh yeah, I hope you get better. You and Willy.” With that she nuzzled into her mother’s side and Jo put her arms around both of her daughters, squeezing them both tight.
Watching them we all felt closer to each other.
Deon was last, playing with his yellow scarf, twisting the ends together repeatedly as he spoke.
“Trey was my best friend and I don’t want him to die. I’m glad Roberto’s here, even if he’s sick, too, but I want Trey to live, so I hope he gets better.
“I used to read the Bible a lot with my mother and grandmother before the state took me away. I want to read the Bible now. I wish I had one.”
Karen rushed out of the room signaling that she would be right back.
“I believe in Heaven and I believe in Hell, that bad people go to Hell. But if I were God, I would send Trey to Heaven. Willy, too, although he may need to spend some time in a time-out room in heaven until he gets perfect. That’s what I would do with Willy and Trey, if I were God.
“I wish we could heal Trey and Willy because we sure prayed good, here, just like we did when my Grammy was dying. Grammy died too, but I wish she didn’t. Maybe she’s an angel, too, like Monica’s grandmother. I see my Grammy a lot, especially when I’m in juvy. She comes into my room when I’m sleeping and sits down next to me. Dave says that I’m having lucid dreams, whatever that is, but it feels real to me.
“Anyway, Grammy runs her fingers through my hair and it feels real good. She tells me that I’m the ‘best little boy in the world,’ and I like that, and I know she’s telling me to try harder to be good. And she gives me a big hug, too, before she goes.
“So, if Trey dies, I think he’ll make a good angel, and I hope he comes back. I hope he’ll be my guardian angel, too, like Grammy. Willy could make a good angel, too, but if I were God, I would make Trey an angel right away. Maybe he is an angel already, like Monica says, and God is taking him back now that his job is done. Anyway, I hope Trey and Willy get better.”
Karen came back at that moment with a bible and handed it to Deon.
“Do you know what you want to read, Deon?” I asked.
“Yeah, I know.” But he kept looking through pages and pages and it didn’t seem like he knew where to go. As we waited for Deon, I felt the special feeling of the evening slip away. I was about to say a prayer or something to fill the void when Karen reached over to Deon, and together they found Psalms. Of course, Deon said that was exactly what he was looking for.
“Although I walk through the Valley of Darkness, I am not afraid,” Deon read aloud. On he went and didn’t stumble over a single word. The room became perfectly calm. No one cried or sniffled. Our composure was restored. Deon worked a little miracle right in front of my eyes.
Amazing. Never give up on these guys.
Much later that night, after we had gone to bed, I woke up with an intense need to pee. But, when I took my first awake breath and swallowed, I felt a sharp soreness my throat. Damn, I’m getting something. Christ, even with all our healing work, I’m still getting sick!! Bronchitis? What is wrong with me?
Lying back down in my bed, I felt a dark night of the soul come over me. Is all my belief in mind-over-matter just bs? How come I can’t keep myself healthy? How can I teach these guys how to heal themselves, or help Willy and Trey, if I can’t even help myself?
I lay in bed without answers, but, slowly, the deep anxiety of fear passed and I resolved to continue. I re-focused on perfect health, imagined blue waves of healing energy wash over my throat and lungs. I relaxed, then fell asleep.