John O’Sullivan was an electrical engineer for Consolidated Edison for Forty years. He drove himself and his staff hard, and took pride in the smooth operation of his substation on the lower East side of Manhattan. When a man like John, who proudly self-identified as a type “A” personality, decides to take a break it so often proves to be a serious if not fatal mistake.
In the summer of 2007, my cousin John took his wife, Margaret, on a rare vacation out of the country to the sun swept beaches of Aruba. While a beach vacation was perfect for Margaret, who loved nothing better than to lounge in the sun reading her book, it was a form of physical and mental torture for her husband. He grew restless lying beside her in the hot midwinter sun as his pasty white skin turned a robust red despite his constant application of sunscreen.
I will never be sure what precipitated John’s near fatal stroke on that vacation trip. It may have been a combination of too much alcohol and too much sun. It is even possible that he had mixed up his daily medications. All I know is that when my cousin was air lifted to a State side hospital, he was suffering the consequences of a severe brain damaging event.
When I saw John in the hospital, I could see that he had lost most of the use of the right side of his body and that he was going to be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. While he certainly recognized me and tried to smile and communicate as best he could with gestures and a wave of his hand he had lost nearly all his power of speech.
My college educated, urbane sophisticated cousin’s vocabulary was very much diminished by the cerebral accident and now consisted of one word: “Bang”. He made the most of his one word personal dictionary. He could, by variation in tone and inflection, make his one word sound like a greeting, a farewell, a warning, a curse or a need for intention.
The word “bang” could express a terrible wellspring of frustration. John had spent most of his life in a position of command, first as a Marine noncom,, then as the chief Engineer who ran the substation that powered the lower part of Manhattan. Words, to him, were as vital as eyes were to an artist, ears to an artist or taste buds to a gourmoo.
Locked inside my cousin was the person we had formerly known. He was not like an Alzheimer’s victim whose mind had staged a gradual retreat from his body. Rather, I am convinced, he was being held prisoner within the folds of his damaged Parietal lobe.
From the first, there has been no question that he would never set foot in his old offices on E 14th Street again. There could be no grand retirement party, just a quiet filing of his papers and the first payments from his retirement plan. These were sufficient, along with his other investments, to provide him and his wife with a modest, comfortable retirement. If not for the crash that swept the stock market in 2008, his stocks would have been sufficient to permit a healthy cousin John and his wife to tour the world. Now, in the shadow of the great recession, his remaining capital paid for the home health aides and medications that maintained his precarious existence.
Margaret passed on late in 2011, a problem with her heart, the attending physician said. I saw Cousin John at her wake, the chief mourner unable to express his grief. I took his good hand and expressed my fellow feeling for his loss. My poor words of condolence were inadequate but he gave my hand a gentle squeeze and whispered “bang” which told me he understood. It was a gentle voice from somewhere out on the edge of sadness.
With Margaret gone, the primary responsibility for John’s care was taken over by his daughter Megan and her husband. The family sold off the big old house in Yorkville and John moved in with Megan’s family in Pelham. There his pension and savings paid for 24/7 nursing care and a physical therapist. It must have been a source of humiliation for this proud man, a Marine veteran of the 26th Marine Battalion who had fought at Khe Sanh, to be laid upon a table and have his limbs moved by others to maintain their muscle tone in vain attempts to retrain his surviving brain.
I last saw my cousin at the Fourth of July family picnic. He had good color and displayed a healthy appetite. He really enjoyed the fireworks display on the East River. He said “Bang” repeatedly, with all the enthusiasm of a young child.
I got the sad news about John the day after Hurricane Sandy struck the New York area. My cousin Megan was understandably upset and was blaming herself for allowing her father to watch the news on T.V. He had become visibly agitated when Eyewitness news showed the Con Edison plant of E14th Street exploding and the lower half of Manhattan plunging into darkness. Megan said that Dad screamed “BANG” in a tortured voice, then slumped back into his chair and was gone.
I never did get to the services for Cousin John. My own house was without power and heat and the gas in my tank was too dangerously low to risk the trip in those days immediately following the storm. I still think of my late cousin often, and when I do I toss a bootless prayer for him into the winds of Eternity. The substation on E. 14th has been repaired; The damaged homes ripped down or rebuilt and the reminders of the storm grow fewer and fewer like the surface of the sea grown calm in the wake of the storm.
a fictionalized memoir of the aftermath of my Cousins stroke, disability and death.