I had heard that word workaholic twice in the same week and had I listened carefully, I would have realized the people using it were referring to me.
The problem was, I was so focused on work that it was to the exclusion of all else.
Of course, it hadn’t been my choice to get ill, but, sitting in front of the doctor, a man whom I rarely saw because I was rarely ill, I was still trying to come to terms with his explanation.
“You’ve been working too hard, forgetting to eat or sleep, and the toll it has taken has weakened your immune system to the point where that last bout of influenza nearly killed you.”
Yes. There might be some truth to that statement, because for the last three weeks I was told I was hovering between life and death, and, at one stage, there had been grave fears I was not going to make it.
No, it wasn’t COVID 19, like a good many others in the hospital, it was just simply influenza.
“I didn’t think it could happen to me,” I said lamely, now realizing it could, simply because of my own stupidity.
At least it didn’t affect anyone else, well, except perhaps my sister, Eileen, who was devastated to learn I was gravely ill, and had been called with the news I was likely to die. Sitting in the chair beside me, she was still incredibly angry with me.
“He has always been a moronic fool that never listens to anyone. Thinks he’s invincible.” The statement was delivered along with a suitable look of disdain and annoyance.
The doctor transferred his admonishing stare to me. “It’s time you started taking care of yourself. I’ll be sending a report to your company telling them that you have to take two months off work to recover. Going back to work is not an option.”
“But there is so much to do.” I could practically see the pile of folders on my desk waiting for my return.
“Then someone else will have to do it.”
“Don’t worry,” my sister said, “I’ll make sure he does as he’s told.”
I had been fiercely independent ever since I left hone when I was just 18. I’d had a bitter argument with my father over working in the family business, a profession I had no interest in and certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing.
It had kept me from going home after returning once, some months later, in an attempt to appease him, but only making matters worse. It had affected my mother more than my sister, but that hadn’t stopped her from trying to resolve our issues.
But it was not to be. About five years later he died of a heart attack, brought on by the same work ethic I’d inherited from him. I came home from the funeral at a bad time, the end of a relationship that I thought was the one, and at a time where heavy drinking and drugs had made me a horrible person.
In the end, my sister sent me home, and, because of my bad behaviour, my mother stopped speaking to me.
Ten years ago, my mother died, Eileen said it was from a broken heart, and it was the first time I’d returned home since my father’s death. Not much had changed, it was still the town that a lot of my generation and since wanted to leave on the belief there was something better out there.
That time, because of my bad behaviour, being inconvenienced by another funeral at a time when I had been working hard towards a promotion, this time Eileen’s daughters sent me away after seeing how much I’d distressed their mother.
I could see now how bad my history was, and it was shameful. Perhaps my first words to all of them would be to apologise, but sadly, it would be too little too late.
Yes, happy families indeed.
Going home was, Eileen said, the best place for my recovery. Away from the rat race, her oft used expression for New York, and back to the tranquillity and peaceful town where I was born, went to school, and lived half my life.
The people were not the same as those indifferent city dwellers who would happily step over your dying body without a care to help or even call for help. She had read the newspapers, seen what happens, people dying all the time, in the streets, of drug overdoses, and at the end of a knife or a gun.
She was surprised I’d lasted so long, given my alienating disposition, all of this homily delivered as I packed a few belongings for the road trip. She was however momentarily distracted by the opulence of the lot apartment, and the fact I owned it. I refused to tell her how much it cost when she asked. Twice.
But it was too remote, too sterile, and not a place to recover. And it needed the ministrations of a good cleaning lady.
No, the best place for me to recover was home and home was where we were going. After the hospital had agreed to send me home, she had made the decision I would be staying with her.
That might have held a great deal of trepidation had her husband still been there, but he wasn’t. In keeping with the Walton family tradition, marriages and relationships didn’t last, and Eileen’s was no exception.
I’d thought Will, the man she’d met at school, known all her life, and who was her soul mate, had been the one, but whatever I and Eileen may have thought, he didn’t agree.
Now, she lived in the old family home, left to both of us after out parents passing, with her two children, twin girls. I’d met them a few times, and though they projected this air of daintiness, they were pure evil.
But I guess that opinion was fuelled by the lack of understanding children or wanting to know. That notion of being a father, at any time in my life, was not something I aspired to. Besides, I was never going to find a suitable woman who would be willing to put up with me, children, or no children.
It was a thousand plus mile drive from New York to our hometown in Iowa. My first question had been why she would drive and not get on a plane, but that was tempered by the realisation my sister was not a rich woman.
She had borne the brunt of both our parents passing and having to manage the sale of the business and home. She hadn’t complained, but I could feel the resentment simmering beneath the surface.
I had dumped it all on her, and she was right to be resentful. It was another of my traits, inherited from my father, selfishness.
The first few hours of that drive were in silence. It was not surprising, I had said something stupid, also another thing I was prone to doing. I apologised three times before she would speak to me again.
“You’re going to have to improve your manners. The girls will not put up with your attitude or behaviour, not again.”
The girls. My worst fear was meeting them again after so long. I had no doubt they hated me, and with good reason.
They were now out of the troublesome teens and had found jobs that saw them able to spend more time at home, as well as pursue a career in their chosen fields.
“I’m surprised they agreed to let you bring me home.”
“They are not the same children as they were the last time you were here, what is it, nine, ten years ago. It was an impossible time, and you were not exactly the ideal or understanding uncle, but Itold them you were more like our father and he was a horrid man at best. They were lucky they don’t remember him. I also told them, both times you were here, that you were not yourself then, not the brother I once knew before you got those delusions that made you leave.”
“Why would anyone want to leave a beautiful place like our hometown. It has everything.”
“Except high paying jobs and be able to meet lots of diversely different people.”
“We have diversity.”
Yes, there I go again, unable to reign in the small-town resentment factor, even after all the intervening years. It was a chip on the shoulder that would need to be surgically removed, if I was ever going to get past it.
I let another half hour pass before I said, ” I’m sure your daughters are every bit as remarkable as you are, Eileen. You were always going to be a wonderful mother, whereas I don’t think I’d make any sort of father a child would want.”
I could feel rather than see the sideways glance.
“It doesn’t have to be that way.”
“I have the same genes my father had. I always said I was nothing like him, but if I’ve learned anything over the last 20 years, I’m exactly like him.”
“Then think about that statement. The fact you realise that is just the first step.”
That made two very large assumptions, that I knew how to change, and that I wanted to. Climbing the hill of success had robbed me of a lot of things because to succeed you had to be ruthless. And I had taken it to a whole new level.
Another hour passed, and we stopped for lunch. My phone rang, and as I went to pick it up off my car seat, Eileen got there first. I just managed to see it was the VP of Administration calling, another problem to be resolved.
“I thought I said no phones, computers, means of communicating with work. They know you’re ill and the agreed to give you time off.”
She killed the call, then threw the phone in the first rubbish bin we passed.
“No phone, no calls, no work. You keep answering, they’ll keep calling.”
A shake of the head, a look of disdain. She might yet regret volunteering to rehabilitate me.
We stayed overnight it a quaint hotel, it being too far to go the whole thousand plus miles in one day.
It was a wise decision because although I would profess otherwise, I was not very well. It was another wise decision to get a room where she could keep an eye on me, no doubt on the advice of the doctor, who, I suspected, had given her a fuller briefing on my condition that he gave me.
And because I wasn’t well, we delayed leaving. It gave me pause the think of what it was I wanted out of life. It would be truthful to say that until I tried to drag myself out of bed, telling myself that this was just a blip on the radar, I was treating this whole episode too lightly.
Maybe it wasn’t, but I hadn’t quite got the message yet.
When I sat down in the dining room for breakfast, suddenly, a tiredness came over me, and it finally hit home. Maybe what I was doing with my life wasn’t as important as I thought it was.
“You’re looking pale, should I be worried?”
It was about the sixth time she asked, and the concern was genuine. I guess I had to ask myself why after all those years of being a bad brother, she would really care. Maybe she understood the value of family where I didn’t and it was bothering me that after saying I was never going to be like my father, it was exactly who I was.
“Long day yesterday. Longer night. The battle will be not so much getting through this, whatever it is,
But changing a lifelong mindset.”
“The first step is always the hardest, they say.”
“Have you met any of the infamous ‘they’?”
“That’s for me to know, and for you to find out.”
The rest of the road trip was in silence, except for the odd comment or question, until we reached the outskirts of town, and the memory kicked in.
Some things never changed, but where once I would have said that was exactly why I left the place 20 years ago, it was now what some would say was one of its endearing qualities.
There were mixed feelings, that I’d said more than once, with conviction, that I would have to die before I came back, to why had I waited so long. It was an odd reaction.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” she said.
“Did you swallow a book of idioms?”
“I can read, you know. I went to the same schools as you did.”
And got higher grades and was the smarter of the two of us. Yet she never did anything with it, that was my biggest disappointment with her. Our father had considered her place was at home, that old fashioned 1950s thinking, and whenever he had said it, she snorted in derision and told him to drag himself into the twentieth century.
He didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t was a question without answer but she never stopped trying.
“And never stopped interfering in my life.”
“You needed help because you didn’t know what to do. Marjorie was always the one, you know it, and she knew it. It was just you and the desire to leave that screwed everything up.”
I was wondering how long it would take to get to Marjorie. I did think of her, from time to time, but not as the one that got away. That had been on me, not her. But it was not going to go anywhere because she was the prom queen and I was the geek suffering from unrequited love, despite what Eileen thought.
“She was out of my league Eileen. You know as well as I the she and the future NBA draft pick were always going to be together.”
I could see her shaking her head.
“You never thought to ask, did you?”
I did as it happened and had picked a moment when I thought she would be alone, only it wasn’t. Sean’s friends had been waiting and I never made it. I could still remember, in nightmares that beating.
“You do understand what the word humiliation means?”
The house was in the other side of town so I got the tour of main street, and inverting else, what some might call a trip down memory lane. Even outer once family business was still there, exactly as it was before except a new coat of paint and proprietor name. Dougal. He had his own rival business but was never a threat. I guess he was a happy man when Eileen sold it to him.
Then, in the blink of an eye 8 was back home, and it was as if I had never left. The house, the street, everything was as it had been, which if one thought about, was almost impossible. Things do change, constantly. We were, we had to be in a time warp.
She pulled into the driveway, switched off the engine, leaned back in the seat and sighed. “Welcome home, Daniel.”
I closed my eyes and opened them again just in case this was a dream.
The front door opened and a tall, lanky young girl who looked unmissable like her mother when she was that age, came out, down the stoop to the car. Eileen got out and the girl hugged her.
It made me feel jealous that she had someone there to greet her in such a fashion. When I got home it was to an empty loft.
The girl looked over at me, now that I’d got out of the car too.
There was not a lot of warmth in it, and a look of wariness.
“I’m sorry to cause your family do much inconvenience.” It wasn’t what I should have said, but that’s what came out.
“It’s not. If mom thinks you should be here, then this is where you should be.”
“Your mom was always smarter than me.”
I plucked my overnight bag, as we’ll as Eileen’s suitcase, from the back of the car and shut the trunk. I saw another person come out the door and thought it was the other girl.
As twins I hadn’t been able to tell them apart previously, so I hadn’t used a name. One was Elise, the other Eliza.
The person was not the other twin.
I had gone around to give Eileen her case. It was then I recognised the woman.
“Oh, by the way, your doctor told me I should have a nurse standing by in case you had a relapse, but more to make sure you took your meds. He apparently has the same faith in you I have. None. But I got you the best. You might remember her.
I did. The frenetic increase in my heart rate was testament to that. She had always had that effect on me.
She smiled. “It’s good to see you again Daniel.”
It was the only person I would have expected from a meddlesome sister, even 20 years later.
© Charles Heath 2021