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By GREG MESSEL
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2010 Greg Messel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA SURPRISE VISITOR
November 29, 1999
"Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending" - Maria Robinson
My sudden and unexpected return to Seattle was about to trigger a chain of events which would completely change my life. Three months from this date my career, my life in San Francisco with my daughter and everything I had known before would be radically altered.
Everyone was feeling the pressure of the uncertainty which surrounded the dawning of a new century, which would occur in just about a month. Fear had been spreading around the globe for months in anticipation of the calendar flipping over to 2000. As the final month of the 20th Century came, fear was so rampant that you could sense it and taste it. The fear was so real that it was being sold as a commodity in various forms.
However, not all change is to be feared. Change makes us uncomfortable. The wave of turmoil about to overtake my life would ultimately result in me becoming happier than I had been for years. Abrupt and profound events were about to occur.
The week had begun routinely. I was finishing my work day at the newspaper where I was a reporter. I was looking forward to a quiet Thanksgiving with my daughter, her boyfriend and the parents of my late wife. My twenty-two year old daughter was taking charge this year and was going to prepare the family meal.
I was putting the finishing touches on a story I was writing about a pending garbage strike which could hit San Francisco just before the holidays. I had 15 minutes until deadline, when my phone rang. It was my daughter. She had just received a call from Seattle informing her that my mother was found dead in her home about three hours ago. My mother's death had been completely unexpected despite her advancing years.
An anticipated joyous gathering for Thanksgiving was overshadowed by the sudden passing of my mother. Much of the day was spent communicating with my brother and sister and making travel arrangements.
I also contacted my employer to inform them of the family emergency. My early estimate was that I might be in Seattle for a couple of weeks. My editor expressed his condolences and then reminded me that I had not taken a day off for a very long time. My workaholic habits had become a topic at the newspaper with my boss for some time. He kept urging me to use some of my allocated days off to recharge my batteries. I was teased by my editor that San Francisco and the newspaper could actually function without me there.
San Francisco was renowned for its resiliency and had bounced back from many catastrophic events. My newspaper-the San Francisco Chronicle-had been operating for over a hundred years. I was assured that both the city and the newspaper had somehow found ways to cope in the past without me. My editor didn't want to use this time of bereavement as a chance to ping on me about taking some time off. I'm sure he was showing restraint when after informing him of my mother's death, I said I would need to take a couple of weeks off.
"Take all of the time you need," my editor replied.
I flew to Seattle to meet my brother and sister on Friday. We made funeral arrangements and began the process of putting my mother's affairs in order. My sister was already in Seattle on Thanksgiving when I talked with her. She was getting several things in motion and we jointly decided to have the funeral on Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend. My sister contacted the Seattle newspapers with obituary information and the time and location of the funeral, so my mother's passing would get the attention it deserved.
I flew out of San Francisco on the busy Friday morning after Thanksgiving. I didn't know that it would be much longer than a few weeks before I returned to my beloved city. I also did not realize that when the plane's wheels lifted off of the runway in San Francisco that events were now set in motion which would change my life forever.
The change would be the stuff of which dreams are made.
On Monday, as we entered the church, the congregation arose out of respect for my mother. I walked with my brother and sister as my mother's casket was rolled slowly down the middle aisle of the church.
It had been a gray, rainy Monday in Seattle and the sky was like a thick layer of gray cotton balls. There had been a dense overcast all day with no hint that the sun could ever penetrate the heavy blanket of clouds. The church was full of many of those people who had shared parts of my mother's journey through life. She had spent most of her days in the Seattle area since her entry into the world in 1916.
It was just after my mother's birth in January of 1916, that Seattle was hit with the Great Storm of 1916. It began to snow in Seattle in late January of that year. Before it was over on February 2, there were more than 21 inches of snow. It still stands as the largest snowfall ever in a city which rarely gets snow. I've seen old sepia toned pictures of piles of snow on Yesler Way downtown. Trolleys were stranded by huge piles of wet snow and there was no way of removing it. A large snowman blocked the sidewalk on Third Ave. and the dome of St. James Cathedral collapsed. There are pictures of turn-of-the-century-looking men in bowler hats looking perplexed at the huge piles of snow, perhaps wondering why God made the rain freeze and behave it such a strange way.
There were many intersecting lines between her life and the collective experience of those who populated the pews. My mother's mortality had lasted just over 83 years. My mother entered the world in the middle of the "great war", the war to end all wars supposedly, as American troops headed to Europe to fight the aggressors.
She was about two years old when the influenza epidemic hit the nation just as they celebrated victory, with masks over their noses and mouths to prevent the spread of the deadly plague. Mom was a teenager during the Great Depression and a young woman just as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor as Hitler marched across Europe.
My father, who died five years ago, had survived the Pearl Harbor attack on one of the ships while regularly writing letters to my mother. He continued to fight in the South Pacific through the rest of the war. Dad finally reunited with my mother in Seattle where they were married in 1947. It was an incredible chunk of history which ran concurrently with my mother's life. She witnessed firsthand most of the major events of the 20th Century but she succumbed just weeks before the dawn of the new century.
Her three children, who now walked silently behind her, had hoped her journey would last a little longer but the end came suddenly and peacefully. My mother had a good life and, as far as I'm aware, enriched the lives of others she encountered. My brother Raymond was born in 1948 and my sister, Diane, came two years later. Finally there was me, who entered the family last- just two years after Diane.
The last time I talked with my mother we had made plans to get together at Christmas time in Seattle. My daughter Vicki had the holiday break approaching and was planning to come with me. Vicki is a beautiful blend of her Japanese mother and my gene pool. She was about five foot five, had thick black hair and large brown eyes like her mother. I'm proud of her as she finishes her senior year at the University of San Francisco. I only have one child, but this one is a thoroughbred. I appear to have gotten quality in place of quantity in the offspring department.
Vicki and I are now in Seattle to be with my mother, but not in the way we envisioned. The world will be an emptier and colder place without my mother. I knew she was getting older but I actually thought she would be around for several more years.
I walked slowly and tried to appear appropriately serious for this occasion, mostly looking at the back of my mother's coffin. I was aware that as part of the trio walking behind her, we were the focal point of the crowded church. We were to accompany my mother's final entry into the church to the front of the chapel where we would take our place on the front row. About halfway down the long aisle, something made me glance up. Then I saw Katie.
Could it be, after all of these years?
I'm sure my solemn, sad mask slipped as I registered complete astonishment. It had to be Katie! I briefly broke ranks and gave her a quick hug, saying, "Wait for me afterwards." I sure hoped that was Katie or else I had just picked up a woman, who was a total stranger, at my mother's funeral.
She looked so good and I couldn't resist stealing glances at her all through the funeral service. My brother and sister gave me a couple of inquisitive glances which sent the message, "what are you doing?" I kept swiveling to the right to check her out. She caught me looking a few times and gave me a small smile.
I was now feeling guilty that my own mother's funeral had become background noise to my thoughts as I remembered my time with Katie in the magical years of youth. I also pondered all of the years without her. I've spent many years wondering where she was.
I hadn't seen Katie for almost 30 years. Yet I had seen her ... in my mind in the often-remembered golden days so long ago when we were "the couple." We were the couple that in everyone's estimation would be together forever.
In our high school years, Katie and I dwelt in a privileged existence. We had everything at our disposal as the royalty of our popularity-fueled high school world. We were mostly oblivious to our status and thought it was just the way the world was structured. Then it all came apart after high school graduation and the intrusion of the harsh, real world.
What was her married name now? She didn't go by her maiden name Katie Broussard. I know she didn't.
There had been many late, lonely nights when my stray thoughts would turn to her for some reason. I wondered where she was now. Is she still in the Seattle area? Is she still married? Is she happy? Does she have kids? Is she still alive? If she is still alive and any of these other things ... would she like to see me? Does she still harbor resentment towards me because of my insensitivity to her feelings so many years ago? How could I've so carelessly tossed away a jewel such as her?
Over the years when I would return to Seattle, I wondered if I would see her again. I secretly looked for Katie in crowded places and sometimes would even see a woman with blonde hair that I thought might be her. When I returned to the old neighborhood, I sometimes imagined what it would be like if I did see her again.
I had searched on our high school reunion web site for her name and launched internet searches sometimes late at night when I was feeling lonely or melancholy. In all of the vast power of the internet, "my" Katie was MIA. She was flying below the radar of the electronic surveillance we were all under as the 21st Century neared. I launched these electronic reconnaissance missions sometimes even when my wife, Wendy, was still living.
There were never any signs of Katie. However, Katie was always with me. I fantasized about what my alternative life would have been like if I had been true to Katie. What if I had come back from San Francisco to get her, like I promised I would? She was the one that got away ... or more accurately the one I sent away. I went to our ten-year reunion hoping Katie would be there. There was no Katie. Some of our old friends thought she would come. They had lost track of Katie but they said she still lived in Seattle. A few people I met at the reunion said that they last they had heard she was married to a doctor.
I didn't go to the 20-year reunion because it was held during the last weeks of Wendy's life and our home had been damaged by a severe earthquake. We were all robbed of seeing our beautiful, golden Katie, one of the most popular girls in our high school.
I remember those faded memories of Katie the cheerleader; Katie the homecoming queen and Katie, my anointed girlfriend for life. It was because Katie loved me that many people thought I was blessed with abundance of all things a teenage boy values. Many guys were jealous that Katie loved me. Many girls, who in my hormonal turbo-charged 17-year old mind, might have been interested in me-were not, because they knew I belonged to Katie.
Now at the most unlikely of times, Katie reappears in my life-at my mother's funeral. She is barely over five feet tall. She weighed less than 90 pounds in high school. Katie now, over 30 years later, looks only 10-15 pounds heavier. I very much approve of the strategic location where those extra pounds decided to land.
Geez, I'm such a pervert and such a scum. I'm sitting at my mother's funeral thinking about how Katie's breasts and hips have filled out in such a delightful way. She came appropriately dressed in a sleek black dress and black nylons. Katie looks great in black.
What kind of person has these thoughts while their dead mother lies before them being eulogized as a wonderful person? I haven't heard most of what has been said. I wonder how much privacy we have from those spirits on the other side. Does my mother, now part of the great hereafter, know that I'm spending her funeral thinking about the cup size of my long lost love? If she could, would mom cuff me alongside the head and say, "Pay attention!"
I'm picking up a woman at my mother's funeral because I think she looks hot in black.
Actually it is much, much more. Katie is my long-lost love. I had wondered if I would ever see her again. The way she looks now is beyond my most optimistic fantasy about how middle-age would descend on Katie. Her blonde hair is still blonde, but shorter, trimmed just below her jaw line. The Katie of my youth always had long blonde hair, which bounced freely in the carefree days of our love. Sometimes she had her hair pulled back in a ponytail which, because of her diminutive size, made her look about 13 years old when we were seniors in high school.
Her face was still beautiful, and her sparkling green eyes still looked the same as when I'd stared into them on Friday night dates or at the beach. There were more lines on her face but she actually looked better than ever. Speaking of lines on your face ... is Katie sitting back there taking the same physical inventory of me that I'm taking of her?
Is she thinking, "Wow, what happened?" Is she thinking, "Someone has really had a hard life ... or maybe he was in some kind of deforming car accident or fire." I hope I look anything close to as good as she looks. Do I look fat to her? Is she thinking-"I wonder what he has been doing for the past thirty years? Apparently eating!"
I was just over six feet tall and weighed about 170 pounds last time Katie saw me. I no longer weighed 170, but more like 200. My sandy-colored hair was now starting to be speckled with signs of gray.
I need to snap out of it and get back into my mother's funeral. I wonder why Katie came. Was it to see me? Or am I delusional and she was closer to my mother than I realized? Why did Katie choose this moment to reappear after all of these years? Does this mean she is still interested in me? Could it be? She appeared glad to see me. Who is that guy sitting by her? Is that her husband? Oh, no, I bet it is her husband. Maybe he came to kick my butt because of the way I treated his sweet wife.
Wait, what kind of guy comes to a funeral to beat up his wife's former boyfriend? Oh, no. I suddenly bent over with both hands covering my face. I then realized that the congregation must have thought I was suddenly overwhelmed with grief.
How could I be doing this to my sweet mother? When I removed my hands from my face, Diane gave me a sympathetic glance and wiped tears from her eyes with a Kleenex. Raymond leaned around Diane and frowned at me as if to say, "What the hell are you doing?"
I tried to put my funeral-face back on and get into the event at hand. Suddenly, as I pulled myself back into the moment and tried to forget about Katie for a minute, I heard "amen and amen" then organ music began. It was over. I don't remember a single thing about my own mother's funeral because I was obsessing about Katie. I'm so confused by the sudden unexpected intersection of two divergent events-my mother's funeral and the startling reappearance of my long lost Katie.
I felt sadness and extreme excitement all at once, which was short circuiting my ability to think rationally. Amid my complete disorientation I heard the clergyman say, "Will the congregation please rise." Whoa, it's time to leave. I had to find some way to secure Katie so she wouldn't suddenly disappear from the funeral and again from my life.
Excerpted from Expiation by GREG MESSEL Copyright © 2010 by Greg Messel. Excerpted by permission.
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