“I don’t have much time left on earth, Joey. Cancer is eating my body and it will stop working.” My mother told me when I was seven.
“I don’t want everyone to know yet,” she said. “So, let’s keep this between us, okay?”
Hugging her tight, I said, “Okay.” We cried. Afterward, she needed to get some rest.
The only other person mom ever told was a man named Tommy, one of four brothers who owned The Westchester Square Plumbing Supply in the Bronx, NY where my father bought supplies. With notes in my sock addressed to “Uncle Tommy,” I was sent down. After he read my couriered letters he’d come back to me with a handful of cash.
“He’s not there for me,” some of the letters said that I read before getting them to Uncle Tommy. Mom was referring to my father who didn’t seem to care about anything but spending his time with the neighborhood prostitute, “Hoe Marie,” never mind mom’s cancer.
When I returned home I gave mom the money and she thanked me for being such a sweet boy.
“You’re more a man than your father will ever be, Joey.” She’d say. “Thank you for not saying anything to dad about going down to the plumbing supply.”
Mom’s cancer progressed quickly. She called me into her room a week after she announced her imminent death, weeping.
“My hair is falling out, see?” she said, wiping her eyes and handing me her bristled brush.
“It’s from all the chemotherapy and radiation the doctors are giving me.” She informed me. Though I cannot recall mom ever going to the hospital for treatments.
I prayed to God and pleaded that mom’s cancer stop eating her body.
I became overwhelmed one afternoon while I was standing in the kitchen and wondered what life would be like without her. My palms got clammy, my heart quickened, and my vision began to get blurry. At seven years old, I had my first full-fledged panic attack. I ran into the livingroom, buried my face into the cushions of the sofa, and cried myself to sleep.
I was awakened several hours later by mom.
“Sweetie, wake up, I need you to do something for me,” she said.
I sat up wiping the tiredness out of my eyes. Mom was looking out of the living room into the hallway making sure no one was around. She handed me another note to carry down to Uncle Tommy.
I took the note and placed it in my sock, the edge of it pushing into my ankle.
Make sure no one sees you leaving,” she said. “Especially your piece of shit father.”
I made my way down stairs and as I headed toward Castle Hill Avenue to the plumbing supply, my piece of shit father was coming out of the basement where he repaired TVs, VCRs and took shots of Dewar’s scotch. I didn’t acknowledge him, walking on.
I entered into the warehouse side of the plumbing supply where a big Spanish guy sat at the counter.
Hey little man, you looking for Uncle Tommy?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
He left me standing there while he went to look for him.
On the wall behind the counter hung a playmates calendar. A beautiful girl was posing naked. I was smiling when a woman from the front office came into the warehouse.
“Oh, my goodness,” she said. “Look at you. You’re so cute. What’s your name?”
“Joey,” I said as she came from behind the counter.
“You are so handsome, Joey. Would you like some chocolate?” she asked as she took my hand and directed me to the front office, disregarding my answer of, “Yes!”
The front office was much cleaner than the warehouse. A lot less greasy and full of women with bowls of candy.
All the women came from behind their desks and gathered around me, swooning, holding out their bowls of candy for me to indulge. I wondered if one of them was the lady on the calendar.
Uncle Tommy came and we went back into the warehouse.
I handed him the note and waited as he retreated to the back by the copper pipes to read it. I was smiling again, eyeing the naked girl on the calendar.
Afterward, Uncle Tommy asked me to meet him out by the driveway.
Outside, he handed me a handful of cash and said, “Make sure you get this straight to your mom.”
I will,” I said.
Back home, dad was standing at the front stoop smoking a cigarette. I walked past him upstairs to mom and gave her the cash.
Later that evening dad singled me out and angrily told me to go to bed early.
I’m not listening to you, deadbeat,” I said and ran away into the back bedroom to a corner of the bottom bunk. He came after me, ducked down and pounded on me. When he was satisfied, he left me for dead.
I started having a severe asthma attack. I tried to yell out to my mother but didn’t have the breath to. I began fading away and fell to the floor. All I remember are ambulance sirens and then being in Jacobi hospital hooked up to machines. Mom was by my bedside.
“I’m here for you, Joey. See? Not your piece of shit father,” she said.
My hospital stay was two weeks and not once did my piece of shit father come to visit. Uncle Tommy came and he brought a gift; A Howdy Doody doll that said, “It’s Howdy Doody time” when you pulled the string on its back.
God is merciful. It’s true, because Uncle Tommy hadn’t seen or heard from mom in a month or two and she happened to be walking past the plumbing supply one day while he was standing outside smoking a cigarette.
Oh my God! Debbie, I thought you were dying of cancer?” he said.
Mom smiled, twirled around and said, “It’s a miracle!”
There was no more talk of dying or cancer ever since, but I still brought notes down to the plumbing supply.
Not long after mom’s remission, I brought one down. The big Spanish guy at the warehouse counter asked if I needed to see Uncle Tommy.
No,” I said. “I need to see Uncle Eddie.”