Mr. Toner was a big, opinionated man. He was a take-charge kind of guy, but also very generous and hospitable. The Toners had a built-in pool, and a large hill behind their house, and, depending on the weather, I spent much of my youth in their pool or rushing down that hill on a sled. Mr. Toner had a good sense of humor, with a bit of wild side, and a keen sense of loyalty.
I had a guinea pig, Moonbeam, when I was about 10 or so. I wanted a dog, but my father refused. My dad went away on a business trip one day in 1980, and my mother, somewhat defiantly, said, "Okay, kids, let's go get a pet." She wouldn't allow a dog, because she wasn't THAT defiant, so we settled on a guinea pig: a tan and white Abyssinian female.
There is much to say about that catastrophic decision, but I'll get directly to the point: Moonbeam did not like the other guinea pig, and flew into a rage. In my attempt to hold her back, Moonbeam bit my hand, the bridge of my nose, and finally, my chin. In case you're not familiar with the teeth of guinea pigs, they are very long and scalpel-like. Moonbeam's teeth were sunk into the fleshy end of my chin as I ran, screaming, to the kitchen, where my mother was still on the phone. The next few minutes were a blur of blood and curly telephone cord, and my mother wound up with a couple of nasty gashes on her hands, as well. My mother placed a frenzied call to the Toners' house; my father, as I mentioned, was out of town, and my mother wasn't sure what to do next.
Ed Toner did. A few minutes later, he came traipsing through the backyard with a shotgun, and I wailed. My mother met him at the back door and told him the gun wasn't necessary. He put the gun down, disappointed, I think; but he took charge of the scene: he sent my friend and her guinea pig on their way, dressed our wounds, and got us in to see the doctor. My mother needed a tetanus shot; I didn't, since I received one the summer before when a nail went through my leg after an ill-fated tree fort collapsed on me, my sisters, and our friends.*
My generation of neighborhood kids grew up and left, and not long after, many of our parents relocated, including my parents and the Toners. A few years back, my mom and Ed Toner had a brief email exchange — they traded info about the kids, grandkids, and babies on the way. Ed attached a photo, with an explanation: "This is me at Mardi Gras in New Orleans last year."
The attached photo was of an older gentleman, wearing a trench coat, shoes, socks, and he was flashing a bunch of beads, and, most notably, a gigantic fake penis. The fake penis was so large that I didn't notice right away that he was wearing a baseball cap with a large pair of breasts on it.
My mom promptly forwarded the photo to her children, and we were — perhaps for the first time — speechless. You need to see this picture, but in case you are easily shocked, here's your warning: the Ed Toner Mardi Gras picture is at the very end of this post.
A few weeks later — three years ago, today — my entire family was gathered at my sister's place for Catherine's memorial. I had given birth three days prior, and I held the tiny box containing Catherine's remains on my lap. My life no longer made sense. I never wanted kids, but when I found out I was pregnant, I changed everything for Catherine. I went through a day of labor to bring her into the world, and so, I was physically depleted, and could feel my milk coming in. I half-listened to the words of Jenny's minister, ultimately disagreeing with him (though I appreciated what he did for us): there are no reasons to lose a baby. There is no comfort, certainly not three days after her death. I cursed my burning breasts for their betrayal. My baby was in a tiny box on my lap; how could my body not know she was not alive? How could it do this to me?
The service was short. Glen's family came in from Canada the night before, and my folks arrived from Maryland that morning. What next? was the question in everyone's mind. There was no logical next step, but someone said:
"Have you seen that photo of Ed Toner?"
I know how this sounds, coming on the heels of a memorial service for a baby, but none of us knew what to do. We were raw and lost: we might as well look at Ed Toner's wacky Mardi Gras photo. My sister, Karen, offered the laptop displaying said picture to my mother-in-law, a petite woman whose legs did not reach the floor as she sat on Jenny's couch. There was a pause, and then her legs jiggled up and down as she laughed, in shock, at the picture of our former neighbor.
My mother wiped away her tears and smiled. She made her way to the laptop, determined to see that picture again, determined to get her hands on that laptop — she could be demanding like that — which was making its way around the room. She needed to see that picture again. NOW. The laptop moved to Glen's brother, Sean, who also appreciated it; and then to Glen's sisters, Clair and Sheena, who started laughing quietly. There were a lot of people gathered in that room, and my mom encountered difficulty in getting her hands on that laptop. She was perpetually just out of reach.
The mood in the room was lifting; I was mentally numb, and I ached physically; I was very aware of my own laughter, occurring even though I wanted to die. I decided that I wouldn't have family around every minute of the day, and I'd be left alone with my own bleak reality soon enough, that I might as well enjoy the moment.
Ed Toner continued around the room, with my mom right behind. I don't think anyone was deliberately playing "Keep Away From Maggie," but that's what was happening. That laptop was so close, but so far away.
Glen's sister, Brenda, was sitting near the fireplace; the laptop went to her next. My mother lurked behind her, at last close enough to grab the laptop. And she managed to get her hands on it. My mother must have anticipated a struggle, because she yanked heartily. Brenda, to my mother's surprise, did not resist, so my mother fell backward, lost her footing, and collapsed into a large basket of firewood on the hearth.
A hush fell over the room. Then, my father and Glen's mother started laughing. I noticed at that moment that their laughs were similar: silent, but their bodies quivered. Glen's laugh is the opposite: it's a loud explosive roar, and he burst out, "HA!" and then yelled "KARMA!" My mother — I hate to say this now — was very difficult in the weeks leading up to Catherine's birth and death. To be fair, I probably wasn't so easy on her, either. My mom was generous, but she meddled, and she was so critical of everything, from the crib set we had chosen (though she did buy it) to where I registered, to the plans my sister had for the shower, to the fact that we had not — until the week before Catherine's birth — finished the downstairs bathroom, or installed a banister in the stairwell. She was so opinionated, so vocal. I know, too, that she wouldn't have bothered if she didn't care. And she did care: she and my father made the trip to New Jersey and back several times over the course of just a few days. They came to see Catherine in the hospital the night she was born. My mother cradled her little granddaughter's body, and my father wept, just like he laughed: silently. They sat with us for awhile, and then headed back to Maryland, only to make the 4-hour trip again a few days later for the memorial service.
So, my mother was stuck in the basket of firewood, like a beetle on its back, and the room erupted in laughter. I was laughing and crying at the same time** and it seemed like an eternity before my father walked across the room to help her out.
I was concerned: my mother often accused us — erroneously — of laughing at her behind her back. She was kind of paranoid. But that day, she brushed off any embarrassment with little bits of bark from the firewood, and laughed along with us. She took a seat, and finally had the laptop all to herself, and she laughed even harder at the mostly naked picture of our former neighbor.
Ed Toner died a few months ago, and my father, sisters, and I headed over to the wake. I have fond memories of Mr. Toner and his family. He had a knack — whether he knew it at the time (or I knew it at the time) or not — for bringing much needed humor to a situation. Realizing I would have to give up my beloved pet after a bloody assault, was the worst thing I had endured, as a 10-year-old. And Mr. Toner's arrival to my house with a shotgun that day, only added to my trauma. But in retrospect, it didn't take long to see the ridiculousness in it. The pain of losing my furry friend is tempered by the image of a burly Irishman arriving on the scene with enough firepower to take on a hostile bear.
A child's first heartbreak is genuine, but with life's ups and downs, there are always more heartaches. I am fortunate to have had Ed Toner in my life, to come to my rescue again, so many years later. The day of Catherine's memorial service is one of the worst days of my life. The grief, confusion, and physical discomfort were oppressive. Ed Toner — by way of his photo — was able to cut through the pain, and gave us all something to laugh about. Glee and grief are siblings.
I emailed my friend, Keven Toner, earlier this year to ask him if it was okay to write about that picture of his father. I didn't want to be insensitive, especially so soon after his father's death. Kevin's response was supportive, and surprising: the picture my mother so desperately wanted to get her hands on was not actually Ed Toner! It was some random guy who looked like him, and Ed sent the picture around as a joke. It was a good one, too. But it doesn't change my gratitude for giving my heart and head a break from my pain three years ago.
This new information, however, makes me miss my mom and my little girl, who would have been three this week. I miss what we had, and what we didn't have, in both cases.
*Moonbeam went to the vet, first, for observation to make sure she wasn't rabid. Then, she went back to the pet store, where, I imagine, she was resold without any warning about her violent streak. The following month, my father was away again, and my mom took us to the pound, where we finally got our dog, Tramp.
** It's easy to hate the French, but I love that they have a word for this experience: Chantepleure: an alternate mixture of joy and sorrow.