by Fiona Helmsley
“As soon as the collection agencies discover he’s dead, they are going to drain that bank account,” John’s sister, Rebecca, said. “I’ll write you a check for the balance, minus a few cents to keep the account open, and date the check for a few days before he died.”
Rebecca had been handling all of John’s finances while he’d been sick, and I’d been impressed by how well she could sign his name; it looked a lot like his signature. Forgery is one of those refined talents drug addicts have that don’t translate well into any other world. One of my refined drug addict talents had been rifling through the dresser drawers and pants pockets of people asleep in the same room.
“Deposit it immediately,” Rebecca warned. “Collection agencies monitor the Social Security rolls to go after the estates of the deceased. They’re relentless, the vultures.”
She dropped off the check that afternoon. It was for $287. My son’s father had died a few months shy of his fifty-first birthday with less than $300 in tangible assets. It was just a number, a bunch of pennies, dimes and nickels, but it still made my heart hurt.
John’s addiction, like most addictions, was cyclic. It seemed like he was constantly building things up only to tear them down. He’d move into a new apartment, make a big production of decorating and buying the furniture, then stop paying the rent and the furniture would all end up out on the curb. He’d lose his license, get it back, buy a car, and install the mandatory ignition-lock Breathalyzer, then sell the car to local drug dealers once he blew numbers and the engine would no longer start. He was like a Buddhist in that he held on to nothing. He couldn’t. His life was in the scattered closets and basements of family members and halfway houses across the country.
I told myself I would not spend the $287 dollars. I would just leave it there, in the bank, until our son was old enough, then with great gravitas, I would give it to him and I would say, “This money is yours, from your father.” For some reason, I had come to see the money as cash, cash straight from John’s worn leather wallet, in the same denominations he had touched and fingered.
Before he died, John and his sister had started the process for him to collect Social Security/Disability. It had all happened so fast— only a month between his diagnosis and death. He’d been in a lot of pain, especially at his warehouse job, where he was expected to lift very heavy things, and he had taken to wearing Lidoderm pain patches all over his back. One morning, he got out of bed, and that every-day exertion was enough for him to snap a rib. He couldn’t work with a snapped rib, couldn’t ignore the intense, live-wire pain of a snapped rib, so he went to the hospital, and was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, just like that. Each rung on the ladder towards death had a holiday. He was diagnosed at Thanksgiving, in hospice by Christmas. Dead a few days after New Year’s. The money in John’s bank account was the remainder of the first and only Social Security/Disability check he had ever received.
I talked to John every day on the phone after we found out he was sick. At first, I was in denial. I thought all he needed to fight the cancer was chemo and a positive attitude. I thought the most important thing was that he did not use his diagnosis as a reason to drink or get high. My denial dissipated after our first visit post diagnosis. His downward slope was staggering. It was if he had assumed the costume of a sick person overnight—grey sweatpants, a perfect match for his pallor; plastic, open-toed sandals with white tube socks. Personal appearance had always been very important to John, in his vanity he had never lagged. With his life’s valuables in garbage bags at his feet, he’d check himself into rehab in a starched button-down shirt and hounds tooth blazer. He’d often be mistaken for a counselor at the facility, not the dope-sick or DT’ing patient he actually was. The cancer must have been festering inside him for a long time. It was as if that snapped rib had served as the final barrier to its surfacing, and he had no choice but to cozy himself into the wardrobe of his new role.
Another reason John may have been so frequently mistaken for a counselor was that he’d been a counselor; he’d been my counselor. John was the second or third person I met when I checked myself into detox for heroin in 2003; he’d done my intake paperwork. One of the beauties and curses of many rehab facilities is that they often hire former clientele as staff. It’s a boon for the clients, to have staff who can relate to their issues so intimately, who have faced many of the same challenges, but sometimes these people are still very early in their sobriety, and their decisions, like John getting involved with me, reflect that. I had no idea how early in sobriety John actually was. When we met, he’d told me he hadn’t drank or taken a drug in over three years; that is what he told everybody. In reality, John was still smoking pot a few times a day and crack whenever he could manage to slip away for the weekend. Eventually I found out the truth, but by then, I was in love with him. So I left the halfway house I was living in, and moved in with him. Soon, we were getting high together.
One of the last times I saw John before he was diagnosed, I had done something stupid. I am not always very good with bills. It is not so much a poverty issue as it is a scattered- brain one. “Final Notices” with their red banners and dramatic upper case lettering seem to get my attention best. The “Final Notice” that came from Connecticut Light and Power, for some reason, did not. John was in the area, doing well, and came by the house to visit our son. CL&P makes you suffer when you forget to pay a bill, and even though I paid the past due amount minutes after everything went dark, they still wouldn’t return the power until the next day. John could have given me shit for this, could have really relished the moment, me, the fuck-up for once, not him, but he didn’t. Instead, he spent the night and we played Uno with our son by candlelight. The next day, he helped us get rid of everything in the fridge that had gone bad without electricity. We had fun, letting our son throw rotten eggs off the deck. John’s back was hurting him, and he would frequently lie down on the couch and doze off. I could make out the outline of the Lidoderm patches on his back through his shirt. He was looking for a better job, was about to get another car, was looking to move out of the halfway house where he’d been living. He hadn’t drank in over a year, or done coke or dope in a year and a half. I believe that these were honest and true calculations. He didn’t give me shit for being a flake about my bills. This was all growth. We didn’t know. We would know in two months, and he would be dead in three.
“Try to stay on top of these things, Fiona. Just pay your bills as soon as they come in.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “Though it would have been fun to stay in a hotel with a pool.”
“I don’t think your boyfriend would approve of you and I staying in a hotel together,” he said.
“We could have gotten separate rooms.”
“What a waste of money, Fiona! Just stay on top of your bills!”
Every week, I get paid on Friday. The Friday after I receive John’s final check, I imagine the monies in my bank account like entities on a segregated street: on one side is my money, my work- earned money, on the other side is John’s $287. The denominations cannot be mixed or intermingled. John’s money means something, is symbolic of something; this smart, handsome man who worked great jobs, and shitty ones, who drove expensive cars, and trash heaps. Whatever that something is, it’s for our child.
That Friday, after work, I go out to the mailbox and discover a bill from Comcast. It is a “Final Notice,” and our television service is about to be cut off. The bill is for three months of service. I can pay a little— $90, or I can pay the whole thing, $287.
I think about talking to the Comcast operator on the phone. “Yes, I would like to authorize the transfer of $287 from my bank account, just not from the money in the account from the check pre-dated Jan. 4th. You may have to call Bank of America about this. I know it sounds complicated, but your letter is all red in the headline, which means time is of the essence, so you are going to have to put your metaphysical thinking cap on, and work with me. You can have the money, it’s all there. You just can’t touch a certain portion of it, understand?”
Completing John’s new sick- bed wardrobe was the heavily medicated look in his eyes.
As soon as the cancer in his liver, pancreas and esophagus was discovered, his new doctors went about treating his pain correctly, with substances much more powerful than the Lidoderm pain patches he’d been using; substances like fentanyl, oxycontin, dilaudid, and morphine. Substances, from the same family of drugs— opiates— that for the duration of our relationship, right up until my pregnancy, had been our lives’ primary pursuit, that had made the importance of everything else pale in comparison. John had spent the majority of his lifetime trying to clean up from the ravage that his want for them had brought. Now that he was dying, he had permission. There was a part of me that was jealous. But there was always a part of me that was jealous of John; I had gotten clean for our son, while he hadn’t.
In Narcotics Anonymous they talk about not yets. Stolen from your grandmother? Not yet. Sold your body? Not yet. Done a jail bid? Not yet. I got clean to turn the not yet of losing our child into the closest thing to a never, and this meant leaving John when our son was two months old. He had stopped coming home at night so we wouldn’t fight and he wouldn’t have to lie to my face about being drunk or high. He’d also developed an affinity for gambling. I was taking a bath with the baby when he came to the doorway to tell me that he was going to a casino to double the money that his father had lent us to help with the bills. I was still on maternity leave, and we were close to three months behind on the rent. After he left, I packed up all our stuff, mine and the baby’s, and my mother came and picked us up. I was still in my bathrobe. Though we never lived together as a family again, there was a quiet part of me, a very, very quiet part, that I’ve only come to know now since his death, that held onto the hope that maybe one day we would. For me, this is one of the hardest things about John’s death. Losing this very, very quiet hope.
John used to say I was “senti-mental.” The way I hold on to everything; notes, drawings, cards; I can infuse a piece of garbage with supernatural powers, and call it a good luck charm. He, more than anyone else, by the nature of his cycle, knew that you can’t take it with you. Drug addicts have to part with things all the time; some of them inane, some of them profound.
I need to pay the Comcast bill and I know I cannot explain my ridiculous “senti-mental” feelings about the money in my bank account to the operator.
It’s par for the course. Drug addicts have to part with things all the time.
$287 to Comcast, in denominations real or imagined, qualifies as inane.
The loss of John will always be profound.
Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry. Her writing can be found in various anthologies like How Dirty Girls Get Clean and Air in the Paragraph Line and online at websites like Jezebel, xoJane and The Rumpus. She can be reached through her blog Flee Flee This Sad Hotel at http://ilikemymeattender.blogspot.com.