When Timmy was killed, the sympathies received from friends showed love of my son as parents, near family; the sympathies from the Archbishop Ryan and Port Richmond kids were effusive.
I felt blinded to reality. My son is dead, and I felt powerless.
I felt ashamed, and that I failed him as a parent and father. Although I love all my children with the same energy – I loved Tim differently. He was my first.
He was my son; so much like me in a lot of respects as to how I was when I was a boy. Sensitive, caring, loving, and feeling caught between allegiance to both parents and none to myself.
I spent the summer days curled up on the sofa, my laptop set on the arm as I wrote the first of the stories of my relationship with my son. There were a few days when Gi would run an errand and ask me to sit out in the yard as the girls played in their pool.
I would find myself staring up at Tim’s bedroom window. I was expecting the homemade Solar System curtains to part, the shut window to rise up, and Tim’s face to appear behind the screen.
The girls would be calling, “Daddy, come into the pool! Daddy, come on! What are you looking at, Daddy??”
I would try to hold back the tears as best as I could and answer my daughters. “Maybe later baby-girl. Daddy doesn’t want to get wet right now.”
I would go in, fetch a soda from the fridge, grab my cigarettes if I hadn’t already had them in the netted cup holder of the beach chair, and a book I half-heartedly glanced through or notepad that scribble out a line or two of words – a start line to a poem pulled from the ether or a memory I just wanted to note for another essay.
I could feel the tattoo on my upper left arm itch. I had it done on a Sunday, one week after Timmy’s funeral; Memorial Day weekend. Gi had gone to the Poconos to get the girls out of the house.
I’d stayed home, feeling too sullen to even think of leaving the house. I felt that if I left Philadelphia, let alone the house, I would be abandoning Timmy – betraying him by trying to distract myself from the grief.
I turned on the television, and Stephen King’s Dream Catcher was just beginning.
Suddenly, one of the characters stepped into the street and was hit by a car. The news had stories of a fatal car accident or a pile up in some other state on an Interstate.
I figured I would instead watch a DVD, and chose Season 9 of Smallville. Metallo, a Kryptonite fueled cyborg, was the villain for the episode – and sure as Hell, his origin was started after he was hit by a truck.
I turned off the TV and decided to lie down.
I could see Timmy running for the bus.
He enters the crosswalk and is sent flying seventy feet across the asphalt.
Airborne twenty feet in the air. I got up and paced the floor.
I called Parri, my therapist, for help.
“I can’t sleep. I can see the accident! I can see my son being killed.” I screamed and sputtered into the phone.
“Marty,” Parri said. “First calm down…Are you alone?”
“Yes. Gi’s in the mountains with the girls.” I paced the floor. I could feel my hand tighten around the phone.
“What is going on? Are you sleeping?”
“No. Every time I shut my eyes, I can see it happen.”
“It’s your brain thinking; you’re trying to make sense of it. You go to crime scenes and figure out how the crime happened. This is different because of Timmy. You want answers, and no one is giving them to you or can give them to you. So your mind is trying to sort it out.”
“I know.” I murmured through tears, phlegm, and hyperventilating.
“Now did anyone tell you how it happened?”
“No. I just know from when I went to the scene that night. I made Jun take me after we left the hospital. I looked at the crosswalk and the 15 mile-an-hour light. I guessed it to be sixty-five to seventy feet. He shouldn’t be dead!”
“I know. I know.” Parri, I could hear her voice cracking. “You need to get a hold of yourself. Can you call your sister down the shore?”
“I don’t know.”
After about twenty minutes or so, I was calm enough to say good-bye and hung up. Parri told me should I have another episode to call her answering service right away. I promised I would. I went over to my laptop and looked at my tattoo idea.
Arch-angel wings, a halo over a Lion’s head, and a heart set in the Lion’s forehead.
Underneath was Timothy in hollow Celtic lettering, his date of birth and date of death on either side of the Lion’s head. I called a few friends in New Jersey.
I got back text messages about the weather, the surf, the sand, and bikinis. I text back I would be down the next day and asked if anyone wanted to go with me to get a tattoo.
“Come down! We’ll be at Sammy’s, Sammy Hagar’s beach bar, in front of Bally’s.”
I got up the next morning. I felt I had to let Timmy know. I felt I needed to let him know I wasn’t leaving him behind or abandoning him.
I drove to the store and picked up six red star balloons. From there, I drove to Archbishop Ryan High School.
I stood briefly in front of the memorial that had grown over the past ten days or so. I took one balloon and let it go.
“This is for your soul that was sent to Heaven.”
I drove to the cemetery. I carried the remaining five balloons that butted and buffered against each other in the wind with a dull sound of an out of tune snare drum.
The dirt covering Tim’s grave was still a mound covered with dried flowers.
I let one balloon go.
“This one is for God. I hope He’s happy you are with him. You should still be with me.”
I watched it be carried off – it seemed to not drift in a lazy fashion, but like it was driven or pushed upward and towards the foothills of Montgomery County.
I set the remaining four balloons down that were weighted. They bounced angrily against the headstone of Tim’s maternal grandparents and great-great-aunt.
“These are for you because you have four people left behind that will forever love you.”
I yelled. I screamed. I dropped to my knees. I could hear Gi telling someone to grab me. “Get him before he falls in. Pick him up.”
I could feel my brothers, my buddy Tim, and my brother cop Gary and childhood friend Harris pull me up.
That was eight days before as Tim’s casket was being lowered into the ground. I put my hands on the top – feeling the Sun on the wood, followed it down – standing, hunched over, and kneeling. I didn’t want it to go down into the grave.
I got up and walked back to my car. “Goodbye, Monkey. I’ll be back; I just need to get out of the city for a little bit.”
It didn’t help. I still felt I was abandoning Timmy – abandoning my self-imposed vigil. I wanted to hear Timmy say that it was okay.
I needed him to know I was on a mission to save my sanity and not do anything stupid or wrong.
I don’t remember the drive down to Atlantic City. I only remember driving into town off of Arkansas Avenue, and parking in the same garage attached to Bally’s where I had parked almost four years before when my mother died inside Atlantic City Hospital.
I weaved through the throng of tourists, gamblers, beachgoers, and on-lookers. I stepped out onto the boardwalk. I could smell the familiar scent of hot sun on the wooden planks.
My ears were assaulted by loud music coming from Sammy’s. I felt the heat of the coming summer sun on my face. I walked past the security guard at the entrance and found my friends.
Within a moment or two, I felt everything closing in – crowded, loud music coming from the live band, people laughing and talking and shouting over one another or to the waitress in her “uniform” bikini.
I was greeted with hugs, pats on the shoulder kisses on the cheek, and offers to get me something to drink.
“Just a Coke or Pepsi…please.”
After a while, a few of us departed. I had spent most of the time looking at the tourist mini-copter buzz by off the strand. Seagulls were hovering, hoping to swoop in on some unsuspecting tourist with food in hand.
My friends broke up the gathering, some to go home, and others to head to other holiday parties. All were telling me to stay safe, call if I needed anything…the platitudes of friendship. There were more hugs and kisses, man-hugs, pats on the shoulder.
I found my way to AC Ink with a few friends. Leon was with a customer. He stopped for a moment. “Hey. I saw the news. I am so sorry. It took me a second to connect because I didn’t see you on the television.”
“Thanks, brother.” I motioned with my hand, asking if I could come past the counter. I looked at Leon’s work on the girl’s arm. A cover-up tattoo to erase an ex-boyfriend’s name.
Leon soon finished, wrapped up the girl’s tattooed arm with some gauze, lotion, and plastic wrap.
“It’s good. I’m here…as usual. I got six days in this week.” Leon was cleaning up his work station, throwing out disposables, dunking and submerging parts that need to be cleaned and sanitized.
“No fun in the sun?”
“No, dude. I’ll burn. It’s not easy being a fair skinned Ginger.”
I laughed. Leon’s scalp, shaved and balding is covered in tattoos. Industrial piercings in his ears. Although he appeared to look like a cast member from The Pirates of the Caribbean, his smile and sincerity belayed his exterior.
He reminded me of a balding, tattooed, Zach Galifianakis – the chubby guy from The Hangover. His short, stocky body gave evidence of his strength. On the wall, he displayed examples of his non-tattoo art – a couple of small frameless samples on canvas, sketches of women in various poses.
“Do you have time to do my arm?” I asked.
“What do you have in mind?” Leon asked as he handed me the waiver forms, and questionnaire with proof of age, and assurance that I am not under the influence of alcohol, blood thinners, and aspirin – any one of which could cause excessive bleeding and could lead to all sorts of medical problems.
I filled out the form and handed it back to Leon. “I have it on my webpage. Something I put together, but I am hoping you can smooth it out – bring out what I’m trying to express.”
Leon moved his arm like a doorman at a casino towards his computer. I found my design and printed it out. It was black and white.
I wrote out how I want the colors to go, but I knew Leon would add his own flavor and insight as an artist and tattooist. I wanted red wings, Tim’s name in red, the halo in gold, the lion to be in a light brown, and the heart a lighter red.
Leon picked up the design. “Okay, go away for a little bit – get something to eat and come back in about half an hour or so.”
I came back about forty minutes later. Leon held up his interpretation of my design. Gone were the arch-angel wings, replaced by phoenix wings. The heart on the Lion’s forehead smoothed out and sharper.
I loved it.
“I used phoenix wings because as long as you or anyone else remember your kid, he’ll be like a phoenix.” Leon set the drawing down on a light table.
He picked up another copy of it, colored in a bit. “I’m going to mix in some pinks, plum, and reds to bring out the plumage of the feathers.”
I took off my shirt. Leon shaved down the area, applied the stencil, and crafted the tattoo that I started to design the day after the funeral. About an hour later, I paid Leon, said good-bye to my remaining friends and left.
Sometime later on my way home, I listened as Green Day played on the CD, rubbed my arm, and cried.
“Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial
For what it’s worth it was worth all the while
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right.
I hope you had the time of your life.”
~ Good Riddance by Billie Joe Armstrong