Saturday, October 30, 2004

Three Degrees

Kevin Johansen picked up the Smith and Wesson “Saturday Night Special”, and placed the business end of it into his mouth. He paused only long enough to consider the serenity – like nothing he had ever known – balanced with grace on the hair trigger of the gun, of his finger. He considered the brand new quart of milk unopened in his refrigerator. Ensconced in this mental landscape, he pulled the trigger.

A few days later the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran the obituary: “Kevin Johansen, 42, survived by Simon Johansen of New York, Genevieve Olsen of Flat Rock, Colorado, Pete (Petey) Johansen of Minneapolis. Donations to Minneapolis-St.Paul Halfway House in lieu of flowers.”

There, in a 1 inch by 2 inch square of copy, nestled neatly between the want ads and personals, between job seekers and men seeking women seeking men, lay a man’s remains.

When Sam, Petey’s foster dad, first heard the news, he wondered how he should tell Petey about his brother. Petey was a low functioning autistic. At age 5 he was able to read aloud from the Sunday New York Times. Petey’s mom thought he was going to be a great writer some day.

Sam approached Petey who jerked his head in a random motion. His hands twitched raggedly. He had pulled large clumps of his hair from his head, and he would squeal loudly whenever he became upset or nervous. Sam sat Petey down making sure to make eye contact as much as he could. Petey would not, could not look at Sam as he was told the news.

He tried to be gentle but just wasn’t sure Petey understood anything. Petey just picked a scab and made no indication that he understood anything. Instead, he stared at a globe that he spun faster and faster. Sam eventually grew quiet.

Simon Johansen was one of the best corporate lawyers for Sony Corporation America which was headquartered in New York. It was he who made the arrangements for the body, the obituary, calling Sam asking him to tell Petey. It was he who called Genevieve to tell her. Gen was ready to deliver her third baby so he even had the presence of mind to talk to her doctor first to see if she thought the news would cause a problem for her delivery.

Simon bought plane tickets for Gen and Petey, arranged the wake and the burial. By all accounts, Simon took care of everything when Kevin died. He even asked that the coroner’s report be sent to him only and no one else in the family. He spoke with the priest who came to the funeral home to tell him some things about Kevin; how Kevin always had good things to say about people; what a hard worker he was and had it not been for his unfortunate addiction to heroin he might have actually been a decent artist.

Simon told the funeral director that he would have to call his sister for pictures, since she had them all. Besides, except for Petey and Kevin, they had no family in the Twin Cities any more. It would be a sparsely attended wake.

When Gen’s husband broke the news to his wife, her water had already broken. She was already in the hospital, but the labor had not progressed as her doctor had hoped. Gen was an hour away from a pitocin drip to induce her, but when she heard about Kevin, the grief worked better than any drug ever could.

She buried her face, blank with disbelief, heaved her large, swollen body, and shook the cut-away hospital bed violently. Gen squeezed the sheets, convulsing from grief in between spasmodic heaves of an unyielding sense of loss.

There were letters at home on her desk addressed to Kevin, unstamped, now, never to be mailed. They corresponded often, or as often as Kevin would respond. She sent him money when he needed it, and he wrote of visiting after the baby was born.

The anger, frustration and disbelief choked Gen, which she would wear like a noose around her neck forever, she believed. Soon, blame washed over her like the ocean. There was so much to go around, to be sure, but ultimately, the largest chunk landed with both feet square on her chest, like one of those lead x-ray aprons.

Whatever forces were at work filled the room like a whisper; things that were not dilated a few hours earlier were now fully dilated. Things that were not effaced a few hours earlier were now fully effaced. The baby had turned, almost as if to make a grand swan dive down the birth canal.

In four more hours, a baby boy would greet a world awash in grief, to a mother who had been pulled apart like a wishbone. When the doctor asked the baby’s name, Gen, sweating and sleepless, physically pushed over an edge she had never imagined, could only utter: “Anything but ‘Kevin’.”



MB 2004

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