Sand In My Shoes: The end of a half-century-old love story

Christmas Mourning




It was sad Christmas news.

Ryan read the email from his sister, the only girl in a family of seven kids born to Irish immigrants.

This kind of grim news always seems to come in the month of December when you hope to be celebrating joy to the world.

Bad news in December is always the hardest news.

The email from Ryan’s sister told her remaining four brothers that Tommy, her husband of 51 years, was finally taken to the hospital that morning after repeated falls.

He’d been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for the past several years. It was the same insidious disease that had taken their mother some 20 years earlier.

But Tommy was a tough old bird, born and raised in the scrappy streets of Brooklyn. He joined the U.S. Navy at 17 and the military service transformed him into a man with a salty vocabulary but a gentle heart. He bounced around in odd jobs as bachelor after the service until one day, at age 29, he walked into a gin mill with his best friend and asked the attractive barmaid for a beer.

“You see that lady behind the bar,” Tommy told his pal. “Someday I’m gonna marry her.”

Tommy over-tipped Ryan’s sister and returned a few more times. On the third trip to the bar, called Our Place, he asked her to go out with him.

“I can’t,” she said. “I have a four-year-old son and I have to go buy him an Easter suit after work.”

“Good,” said Tommy, unfazed. “I’ll drive you.”

“That’s a date,” said Ryan’s sister, who never learned to drive.

Tommy took Ryan’s sister shopping. Then, on their first date, she had to take along her son. They ate in a nice restaurant and when Tommy was driving her home, her little boy barfed the big meal all over the back seat of Tommy’s car.

“I was mortified,” Ryan’s sister said. “But Tommy just shrugged, said don’t worry about it. We cleaned it up and he drove us home. I fell head over heels in love with this good-looking, good-hearted, hard-working guy.”

A year later, on December 13, 1968, Tommy was 30 when he walked Ryan’s 28-year-old sister down the aisle.

“We went to Ireland on our honeymoon a year after we were married,” Ryan’s sister said. “We spent the first year finding an apartment and making a home.” Tommy would also adopt that little boy who puked in his back seat and love him as his own. He would also become like a seventh brother to all of Ryan’s sister’s brothers.

Tommy worked as a manager in a precious metals plant in those years when no one paid much attention to the industrial toxins they breathed in. If you had a good job, you showed up on time, worked your butt off, and brought the paycheck home to the family.

Ryan’s sister also worked as an editor for a U.S. Navy publication, and together they saved enough to buy a fine home in Staten Island, where all her brothers and their families would come every Thanksgiving to eat like Celtic royalty and to argue politics and sports and to make memories that are a moveable feast.

Their son grew up and joined the U.S. Navy like his dad Tommy at age 17 and came home a mature man. He would also marry the girl of his dreams and raise two great children.

When Tommy and Ryan’s sister retired, they sold the house in Staten Island and bought a house in a retirement community in the suburbs.

They stayed active, walking every day, going to the gym, movies, and community events. Tommy liked target shooting, but only in a gun range. Instead of killing them, Tommy fed the deer that wandered onto his back lawn. Tommy and his bride had long ago given up cigarettes and alcohol because they wanted to grow old together. Ryan never knew a couple as happily married as his sister and Tommy.

“We’ve had a beautiful life,” Ryan’s sister says. “Then, five years ago, Tommy developed a slight tremor in his left finger. I told him not to worry; it was just an old age tremor. But Tommy said no, he didn’t like how it felt. Our mom had Parkinson’s and I didn’t think for a minute Tommy had it.”

Until she went to the doctor. “The neurologist said blood work showed that Tommy had early Parkinson’s,” Ryan’s sister said. “Tommy wasn’t surprised. I was shocked. But I told him not to worry, my mom developed it when she was 60 and she died at 87.”

But Tommy’s Parkinson’s progressed rapidly. In the past year, the tremor became palsy. And this nondiscriminatory disease that attacks popes, heavyweight champions like Muhammad Ali, and famous actors like Michael J. Fox and Ryan’s sister’s favorite singer, Neil Diamond, affected Tommy’s equilibrium. He began to fall and bang his limbs and hips and his head. Ryan’s sister would sometimes try to catch him before he fell and go down with him on her own artificial knee.

She kept bringing him to doctors and the emergency room until they told her that his Parkinson’s was so advanced that he would need to go into a nursing home for 24-hour care.

“I have loved this man for a half-century,” Ryan’s sister said on her 51st wedding anniversary. “I will love him, to his last breath and my last breath. When I asked him if he knew what December 13 was he whispered, ‘Our
anniversary.’”

She left the nursing home to go have a good old-fashioned cry and everywhere she looked Christmas decorations twinkled and carols played and people shopped in the festive season.

“I said a prayer to Mommy who suffered with this awful disease,” said Ryan’s sister. “I prayed to God for a Christmas miracle or to please not let my Tommy linger like my mother had. I love my Tommy too much to watch him suffer.”

This was the sad news Ryan’s sister had to share with her brothers on her 51st wedding anniversary before the Twelve Days of Christmas.

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