A Charmed Life
Chapter 47: Light and Darkness
Copyright© 2016 by The Outsider
06 December 1998 - Wallace Civic Center, Fitchburg, Massachusetts
The beginning of December brought six inches of snow to the Lancaster area, thankfully powder. The first weekend of the month also saw the Knox family trying something new with the boys: skating. The boys were walking by the time they were ten months old, so Jeff and Keiko figured eighteen months-old was a good time to get them onto the ice. The rink was empty when they arrived because no one was taking advantage of the public skating hours at the civic center that day. Alex and Ryan sat side-by-side on the player’s bench while their parents tied double-runner skates to their feet. The boys clung to their father’s hands when they stepped onto the ice for the first time.
“You’re doing great, boys,” Jeff said to them while they made their way around the rink. Both boys were wobbling mightily but stayed upright, still holding their father’s hands; they took the tiny, mincing steps as Jeff remembered from his own first lesson. Keiko skated behind her three boys - one big, two little - pushing Sabrina’s stroller across the ice; the rink’s attendant told them it was okay since the ice was empty. Alex and Ryan did very well for first-time skaters, not falling until they grew tired.
Alex grew frustrated after falling two or three times; Keiko took him back to the bench with Sabrina before he started screaming. Ryan was determined to keep skating despite his fatigue, though his ankles weren’t yet strong enough to keep him upright any longer. After one fall Jeff knelt in front of his younger son.
“Hey, buddy. How ya doin’?”
“I know you do, Ryan, and you’re doing so great for your first time skating! Do your ankles hurt, though?”
“Yeah,” Ryan responded in a sad voice.
“And that’s making it harder to stand up on your skates, right?”
“Yeah.” Ryan sounded sadder than before.
“And that’s okay! It’s because your ankles are tired; they’re not used to skating yet. It’s okay because my ankles were the same way when I started skating. You keep skating with me and they’ll get stronger and stronger. When that happens I can start to teach you some really cool stuff.”
“I’ll show you.” Jeff helped Ryan to the boards. “Watch.” Jeff pushed away and showed his middle child what you could do on hockey skates. Ryan sat spellbound. When Jeff returned Keiko gave both a quick kiss; she took the ice herself and showed what could be done on figure skates. Ryan clapped as his mother skated back to the bench.
“Yay!” Ryan gushed. Alex had his nose in one of his books and wasn’t watching; Sabrina didn’t have much to say about either performance.
“Thank you, Ryan. Let’s get your skates off and we’ll head home.”
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you skate, Keiko.”
“I am a woman of many talents, Jeffrey,” she said proudly.
“A woman of many talents which shall not be named around impressionable, young children!” Jeff whispered to his wife.
“JEFFREY!” Keiko hissed, smiling and swatting at her husband which caused more laughter from him.
After buckling the kids into their seats they stood outside the car together. “Perhaps I can investigate some of your ‘talents’ later when we’re alone?” he asked.
“Perhaps you can sleep on the couch later?”
“You’re no fun.” Keiko stuck her tongue out at him in response. “No more hanging around Heather or Jane for you, either; they’re obviously bad influences.”
Jeff stared in disbelief at the TV a week before Christmas. For his entire life he’d been used to the Soviets being “The Enemy” or “The Threat.” Now here was a new Chairman of the Communist Party talking about “openness” and “freedom,” allowing Soviet citizens to live with less restrictions, and improving relations with the West. The Soviets had gone this route before but the attempted reformer at the time, Gorbachev, was denied his chairmanship by the hard-line coup just before the Gulf War; the intervening eight years were a continuation of U.S.-Soviet Cold War relations rather than the hoped-for thaw.
Keiko came down from putting the kids to bed to see a look of shock on her husband’s face. “Jeffrey?” Jeff motioned to the TV. Keiko watched the news story with him; she looked over at him when it ended. “This is unprecedented.”
“You can say that again.”
“This is unprecedented.”
“Keiko...” he growled while tackling her to the couch and tickling her. Keiko giggled, slapping at Jeff’s hands.
“Well, is it not unprecedented, Jeffrey?” she asked once they were curled up together.
“Yes, Dear, it is unprecedented...” he answered in a sing-song voice.
“What do you think will happen?”
“The world could get a lot safer ... and a lot more dangerous.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, the Soviets and the U.S. could drop our nuclear stockpiles to new lows, thereby making the world safer; you know ‘safer’ because we could only destroy the planet once instead of six times over, or whatever it is.” Keiko rolled her eyes. “But on the flip side we still have the PLO, Hamas and whoever else running around. How many of those groups will feel free to do as they want if things are loosened up? How much of the world are they going to draw into their conflicts?”
“That could lead to an undesirable outcome.”
“I see your gift for understatement is still as good as ever. While I’d rather not have the nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over us, the prospect of terrorists running around all over the place doesn’t thrill me, either.”
“Do you think this Chairman Vavilov will bring about true change?”
“We can only hope, Keiko.”
She nodded. “What are the college materials on the dining room table for?”
“I’ve been thinking of going back to school once the kids are a little older. I’m just investigating my options.”
“Which are what, my husband?”
“I’m trying to decide which branch of history to study should I start my Masters: U.S. history, military history or something else. If I get my Masters do I pursue a Doctorate? I don’t really think there’s any point to getting my Ph.D. at this point since I don’t plan on teaching, but a Masters? Yeah, maybe.”
“Any thought to continuing on with your medical training since you are already a paramedic?”
“It’s worth investigating also. To move up in my field, I’d have to join one of the flight programs nearby, become a paramedic-educator, or go to nursing, PA or medical school. I still enjoy working the road and you don’t necessarily build on your medical knowledge in any of those other schools as much as they teach you from scratch. While I’ve enjoyed working with providers of different experience levels, as well as the occasional student on the ambulance, I’m not sure I want to be the one at the front of the classroom teaching the new providers. I enjoy working at Brophy, working for Seamus and Sean; I’ve made some good friends there. I might think about becoming a supervisor there at some point but any move up would almost require me to come off the road. I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.”
“Have you heard anything further about the separate division Sean once mentioned?”
“No, nothing, now that you mention it. I’ll try and remember to ask Sean about it next time we’re having a private coffee klatch. What time are Emily and Ben coming over tomorrow?”
“They will be dropped off at eleven tomorrow morning. We will make it to Dana with time to spare as long as we leave by quarter to twelve. I have told Emily and Sensei that we will be home by seven or eight tomorrow night.”
“Did Mom say anything to you about Grandpa’s health while you were on the phone with her last night? I asked but she evaded the question and I didn’t press.”
“I believe she was hesitant to discuss his health with you because she believed it would upset you to hear the answer.”
“Keiko, the man’s almost ninety. I have to be blunt: he’ll make his birthday and turn ninety, but he won’t make ninety-one. It’s gonna be upsetting no matter when it happens.”
“Jeffrey, I know you understand that. It could also be that your mother was reluctant to answer your question because she didn’t want to hear the answer. I also believe she fears she will lose her father because of his recent health issues, and that the loss is coming soon.”
“He and Grandma have been together for over fifty years, too. That day won’t be a good day for anyone.”
“How you doing, Grandpa?”
“Your Mom got you worried, Jeff?”
“It’s hard not to be worried, Grandpa. You’ve been around her whole life and mine too, for that matter. A person tends to get attached to family members.”
“I know, Jeff. I’ve been blessed in this life for sure. Blessed to find my Lizzie, have our five girls, meet your grandmother, adopt your mother, see all of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren so far ... I’ve got no regrets, Jeff, and I’ve been luckier than a lot of people in life.”
Jeff smiled sadly at his grandfather, knowing he’d referenced Ken in his last sentence. Nick Keiolis reached over to pat his grandson on his arm.
“Do you mind getting me another glass of wine?”
“Of course not, Grandpa.” Nick’s glass had been empty when Jeff entered the room, so he wasn’t worried about his grandfather getting snorted; he’d told Jeff the empty glass was his first. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Jeff gave Nick another small smile before making his way to the kitchen. His Aunt Ashlyn walked back into the room to carry more food to the buffet and caught the look on his face.
“You okay, Jeff?”
“Yeah, Aunt A-lyn, I’m okay.”
“Been talking to my Dad, have you?”
Jeff nodded. “He’s trying to put a positive spin on things but...”
“It’s not something I’m looking forward to, but I know we’ll all be here for each other when he passes.”
“I wish I didn’t know what his diagnosis meant.”
Ashlyn nodded; she’d been an ICU nurse in Springfield for close to thirty years. “‘A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.’”
“Sometimes an unwanted thing,” Jeff responded.
“Yes, but as they say ‘ignorance is no defense.’”
“Are we gonna trade quotes all day, or are you gonna get that food put out?” Jeff replied with a smile.
She picked up the next dish to bring it out to the dining room, giving Jeff her own sad smile. “We can’t stop it from hurting when Dad goes, Jeff, but we can at least console ourselves that he’s at peace with what’s coming. I’m sure you and your co-workers say the same thing we say in the ICU: ‘No one gets out of the game alive.’”
“Well, except for that one guy...”
“Right,” Ashlyn laughed. “Chin up, kid. Deliver that wine and go get your wife; dinner’s ready.”
“He’s got mets everywhere?” Shawna asked during their next shift.
“Yeah. Grandpa says the doctors are telling him he’s got maybe three months,” Jeff shrugged, trying not to let himself get too down. “They think the cancer started in his pancreas, but now it’s metastasized to his liver and colon and it looks like it’s starting to spread to his bones.”
“Jezus, I’m sorry, Jeff. But he was still at your family’s Christmas party?”
“Yeah,” Jeff repeated. “He was in good spirits, too. It seems like he’s at peace with what’s coming, thankful for being able to live long enough to see great-grandchildren.”
“Fifteen at last count.”
“When you have six daughters who all married young, it’s easy to rack up those kind of numbers. The twins and Sabrina are the youngest of the fifteen so far.”
“So six children and fifteen great-grandchildren; how many grandchildren?”
“There’s twenty-one of us.”
“A ‘small’ Christmas party is anything with less than a quarter of my cousins; there’s usually about three quarters of the grandkids there plus spouses plus all of our parents. Most of us are over eighteen now, but there are still a few in college and not all of their schools let out in time for them to get home for the annual party. So, on average, maybe forty-five to fifty at the party each year.”
“And that’s your Mom’s side?”
“Yeah, the Greek side. Dad’s Irish but was an only child; his parents died before he and Mom had Kara and I. No cousins we keep in touch with from that side, believe it or not.”
“And there’s enough food for all those people when your Mom’s family gets together?”
Jeff laughed. “Silly girl. There’s always enough food for twice that number.”
“Jeff? It’s Grandpa,” came the raspy, weak voice through the telephone in early February.
“Hey, Grandpa! How are you feeling?” Jeff tried to sound upbeat but failed; his voice broke while he’d asked the question. Keiko looked over from her seat next to him and held out her hand in support. Jeff took it, fearing this would be the last time he spoke with his grandfather.
“Jeff, I called to say goodbye.” Jeff tightened his grip on Keiko’s hand while pain registered on his face. “I’m sorry to shock you like that but they keep ramping up my damn morphine, and I’m sleeping more than I’m awake now. I wanted to talk to you before it was too late, before I couldn’t. I’m afraid it won’t be long now.” His grandfather sounded so composed, so at peace, yet tears were threatening to stream down Jeff’s face any moment; Keiko scooted closer to her husband and held him. Jeff tried to say something but his throat was too tight. He swallowed a couple of times, trying to generate some moisture so he could respond.
“I love you, Grandpa,” he finally croaked out, closing his eyes against the tears.
“I love you too, Jeff. I’m proud of you, of the man you’ve become. You’ve found a good partner in Keiko; you two are great parents to Alex, Ryan and Sabrina.” Jeff couldn’t hold the phone any longer; he nodded silently and handed the phone to Keiko.
“Nickolas? ... We love you, too ... We will ... The family will get through this together... Αναπαύσου εν ειρήνχοι. Rest easy ... Goodbye, Nickolas.” She turned the phone off and continued to hold Jeff for some time.
Nick Keiolis was right, as usual. He died in his sleep at his Pelham, Massachusetts home less than a week later; it was the same home he’d shared with his family for almost sixty years. The family knew there’d never be enough room at the house for the gathering after the funeral. Though tight-knit the Greek-Orthodox community in the valley and surrounding towns was only large enough to support one small church on the Greenwich-Enfield line; the building wouldn’t hold the expected amount of mourners. They wouldn’t have enough room in the church’s community hall for all of the guests, either.