A Short Story by Jude Joseph Lovell
For UP, semper fidelis
I thought I had plenty of time to finish the job, so I hadn’t found my way round to worrying about it much. Had I known there were only a few weeks left, I would’ve panicked and would not have been as productive. Maybe sometimes we should remember to be grateful for all we don’t know.
But, as it happened, I woke up early on that cold Ash Wednesday, pulled on some Dickies, boots, and the same green jacket I’ve been wearing since December ’67 with the 3rd Marines at Khe Sanh. I set off down the sidewalk skidding on patches of ice all the way to St. Joseph the Worker—an apt name given the task at hand. My discovery that it was time to begin—now, that morning—came at the precise moment when Father Damien drew a cross in ashes on my forehead and muttered to me, “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Well, that’s just another one of these mysteries I’ve given up trying to explain.
So I slid back home, smoking two Marlboros along the way, another thing I’ve been unable to quit since ’67. I grabbed my keys and took the Jeep to Lowes to buy wood. I hauled the boards—I chose pine—into the garage and got started.
The largest thing I’d ever attempted before then was a birdhouse. I’d winged it through, pun intended, for my niece Jenny’s daughter. But this time I just Googled for the dimensions I needed and dug in. As I said, I figured there was time.
Jane heard me, so she rolled from bed and started getting ready. When she emerged into the garage in her work clothes and ID badge, she was carrying the white metal space heater from our office. That thing may be older than we are. She smiled at the blot of darkness on my brow and started unfurling the cord to plug it in, but I stopped her.
“Francis. Come on. It’s freezing,” Jane said.
“It has to be this way,” I answered. Cold breath puffed before me. She smiled again, wryly. I kept going, humping along without a map. Hell, I’d been there before.
Joe had been Chair of the History Department at the university for 27 years before his retirement in 2014. Even before the ceremony there was talk of naming a new Lecture Hall after him. Not a whole building—Joe wasn’t wealthy enough for that—but one of those long rooms that you go to to hear a speech or watch a movie.
He was also a Deacon at Ascension Parish west of the city but hadn’t retired from that, of course. It’s the Lord’s work, and Joe had always been ready to pick up the flag and march for the Big Man. He gave homilies and baptized babies and could deliver a comforting message when the faithful buried their own. He was known as Deacon Joe and was much beloved. Pa didn’t live to see him ordained, but he would have been proud.
I didn’t quite follow the path of my big brother. I struggled with learning and couldn’t match up to Joe’s standard in school. I lacked his self-confidence. I greatly envied him for always knowing what he wanted to be.
Instead I went the other way. I grew my hair long and smoked pot with my ne’er-do-well friends. When, at eighteen, I told Pa I wasn’t going to go to college, he turned me out. Said I would have to support myself. I enlisted just to spite my parents, plus I cruelly wanted to scare my four little sisters, who had nothing to do with it. The war was still new. We didn’t know. The summer after Joe graduated, I kissed Mother, muttered goodbye to Pa, and took my Honda motorcycle from Chicago all the way to Parris Island.
When I got home in October of ’68 I was barely alive and couldn’t face up to either Pa or Joe. It was easier with the girls. They would just hug me and kiss me a lot, and we played games. I didn’t deserve them.
I spent two weeks at the most in my parents’ basement, and most of those nights I slept under the cot on the cold floor, or tried to. There were terrors. I chain-smoked and cursed so much I made my mother cry. I left home and didn’t see much of Pa or Joe for ten years.
All of the time I was in Vietnam Joe wrote letters. He never resented that I resented him so much. He said he was praying for me the whole time.
Pa got old and frail fast in his 60s and died of stomach cancer at 71. He had terrible heart disease, too. We had reconciled four years earlier. Pa had worked for decades as a social worker for Family Services. When I started volunteering at the VA and was eventually hired as a counselor for traumatized vets, we realized we more or less had the same vocation.
It was hard watching Pa decline. I cared for him every day during his last years. Even Joe was too busy to help as he was rapidly ascending in his department. The year after Pa died, 1987, Joe was named Dean. But he did have Mother and Pa over for dinner every Sunday. I didn’t often attend those dinners. I felt inadequate around Joe. He had a nice house, four growing kids, and a beautiful wife, Patty, who was an eye doctor. I was single and sort of flailing around although I was attending classes at Loyola for the MSW it took me eight years to earn.
Joe never treated me differently. The invitation was always there, but by some wiser impulse he always seemed to have he gave me a wide berth. Years later he wrote off any wisdom behind it. He said he hadn’t been through what I had, and as a result he felt he couldn’t judge or tell me how to be. And he was right about that, too.
I worked on it most of that Lent, out in the garage, no heater, no instructions save for the Googled dimensions—82 to 85 inches long, 23 inches deep, etc. I just eye-balled the angles.
I tried hard but couldn’t quit the Marlboros. My addiction is deep and thoroughly psychological, traceable back to war and the very idea of survival, but it’s been over fifty years with no end in sight. I always figured this would have me in the end, and I’d have it coming.
But the great irony is every time I got screened, though my lungs must have looked like someone’s from the Black Death, I came through cancer-free. Even as I approached 70. Yet there was Deacon Joe, his entire body ravaged, a ticking device.
So I spent two hours out there every morning for two weeks before it began to come together. I made many mistakes. At one point I had to scrap everything, buy more wood, and start over. I thought it couldn’t be that hard, given its relatively simple and familiar structure. But I didn’t have the best power tools, and my sander went down completely, so I ended up hand-sanding the entire thing, which was hell on my lower back.
The pain and struggle of it, though, made me deliriously happy, or maybe the right word is satisfied. It’s hard to describe. Within me there was depthless guilt that Joe was suffering—and maybe that Pa had, too—through an egregious, creeping death that should have been, by any reasonable accounting, reserved for me.
Joe knew how this would play out with me. He knew my hands, my limbs, and muscles would require vigorous engagement while my spirit hurled its inquiries towards the God he served so faithfully. And he knew I would need something to fill the booming silence that came in return. Every hammer blow, every stroke of the wood plane and the sandpaper was a part and parcel to this.
Two days before the end of March, I was seated on the steps leading inside the house about to apply the first layer of finish. It was still only 40 degrees, and my gnarled hands were raw and blistered and just then were cupped around the cigarette I was lighting. Of course, Jane stepped out right at that moment.
I steeled myself for her scolding, but she just said there’d been a call from Patty. Joe’s organs had begun to shut down. He would not see his way to Easter. He asked for me.
Though I had visited one week earlier, and we all knew the outlook was worsening, when I arrived at his bedside, the change was dramatic. It literally stole my breath. I struggled to speak more than Joe.
Then he died, naturally, on the 31st. It was Palm Sunday. And also my 70th birthday.
In the first week of December, Joe had asked me out to Jober’s Reach, the lake house he’d bought in the ’90s in northern Wisconsin. He’d called it that after a nickname our Mother apparently had had as a kid. He wanted a shut-in weekend to mark his birthday—his 73rd.
He never said so, but I knew it was going to be just the two of us, as opposed to a full family thing. Given the occasion, though, that was odd, so I also knew he had something to share.
Joe had suffered many ailments in the previous decade, much like our old man. First, he had terrible headaches. Then he’d acquired a recurring sinus infection that got so bad he’d had to breathe through a tube for a while at night.
Somehow he got past those, but right before his 70th he’d had to endure an invasive procedure to remove a golf-ball sized malignancy from his testicle. While he was at the hospital, they found other masses spreading inside him, so they cut him damn near from the nave to the chops, as it were. Joe recovered again—but at a cost.
This time, he told me the second night on the back deck of Jober’s Reach overlooking the frozen lake with our heavy jackets on, there would be no recovery. “It’s called chronic lymphocytic leukemia,” he explained. “An incurable cancer of the blood cells. But listen, today’s my birthday, right? So here’s what I want. I want you to build my coffin.”
We were grilling steaks. Each of us was swirling a cocktail. I drained mine. The moon glowed over the dark mirror. There were ice crystals chiming in the trees. I asked him how much time I had.
“Six to nine months is the best guess,” Joe said.
I protested. “I can’t do it,” I complained. “It’s too hard.”
“Nonsense,” Joe said. “It has to be this way. I need you to do it so I can rest properly. I’m tired. So give me your hand, Francis, and your word as my brother.”
At the funeral home, my nephew, one of my godsons, approached me cautiously. He’s in his forties now, with four children of his own. A great kid. We always got on.
I was standing there in my suit, hands stuffed in my pockets. Man, I needed a smoke.
The younger man said, “Uncle Francis, I didn’t get to wish you a happy birthday yet. I’m sorry to be doing so in this, uh, situation.” He chuckled. “I didn’t bring a present though.”
“No problem. Joe gave me one.”
“The chance to build this?” He gestured to my brother lying in the coffin, outfitted in his alb and stole.
Turns out I am made of stronger stuff than I understood. With both of them gone I am still able to pick up the flag and march. And that’s what I’ve done.
Photo by Will Sudreth @willsudds
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.