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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 15

I was shocked to see Mr. Wilkinson walk through the doorway of the funeral home, his presence bringing tears to my eyes for the first time today. I kept sneaking peeks at him as the line shuffled towards Alice, Ashley, and me; mom’s sister Jennifer sitting with dad off to the side trying to keep him under control. I prayed he would stay there. He was clearly drunk.

Mr. Wilkinson pursed his lips as he forced a smile.

“Matt, I’m sorry for your loss. I knew your mother well.” His words didn’t register. She still had never mentioned Mr. Wilkinson – even after the ceremony he hosted last fall. He could see the look of confusion on my face.

“We both went to East High…back in the day. I don’t know if she ever mentioned we used to date.” I shook my head, trying to absorb his words as I stared at the casket. What? Date? You mean like Liz and me?

“We were an item our senior year. Your mom had so much joy about her. She always had a smile on her face and laughter in her heart.” I was incredulous, wondering if the woman he knew was the same one I did. He sighed and continued.

“I went away to college at Penn and it was hard to stay connected after that – what with the distance between Iowa City and Philadelphia. I always thought we’d be married when I graduated…but she married your father my senior year.” He stared into the distance, taking a deep breath, and then resuming. “And that was that.” His chin fell to his chest.

He rubbed his eyes with index finger and thumb. I turned to my sisters to break the awkward moment, embarrassed by his raw emotion.

“This is Ashley and this is Alice.” I nodded to my right. “This is Mr. Wilkinson – Mike’s dad.” He smiled at Ashley.

“My…you’re just as pretty as your mom. And Alice…I can see you’re going to break a lot of hearts.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for your loss. Mary Ann was a wonderful girl.”

He smiled at the two, his thoughts a thousand miles away. They were touched by his kind words, but the looks on their faces said they were just as shocked as me about his description of mom.

“Thank you for coming Mr. Wilkinson. And thanks for all you’ve done for me.”

He shook our hands and moved towards the coffin. He knelt in front of mom, his shoulders shaking after a bit, a hand going to his face to wipe away the tears. Kissing his fingertips, he reached out to touch her hands before he stood. I stared at him until he walked from the room.

The moment was surreal.

In the quiet room Liz put her head on my shoulder while we held hands, listening to me describe the encounter with Mr. Wilkinson. She sat up with a start when I said they dated in high school – her eyes as big as saucers. It didn’t make sense. Aunt Jennifer stuck her head in the room and said she was taking grandma back to the nursing home but would pick us up in the morning.

Dad had disappeared before the last guests paid respects so we rode home with the Skogstads, Liz’s mother dropping Ashley, Alice, and me with some food she made – a Pyrex baking dish of lasagna with a package of dinner buns sitting on top, the heating directions for both taped to the tinfoil.

The house seemed so empty when we entered, each of us going to bedrooms to change out of dress clothes, meeting back in the kitchen to talk. Ashley had already started on grilled cheese sandwiches using thick slices of Velveeta while I set out plates and poured the milk. We talked as we ate.

“So, tomorrow Aunt Jennifer is going to pick us up at 9:30am and drive us to the cemetery. I’m going to get up early and run, but I’ll make sure I’m back on time.”

“Can Alice and I sleep in your bed tonight and you sleep in her bunkbed?” I nodded. “It’s too weird for us to sleep separated.” I could read the undercurrent of her words.

We talked long at the kitchen table after the dishes were washed, discussing Alice’s nervousness about starting at Central Jr. High in two weeks and Ashley’s new boyfriend at Urbandale HS, his disbelief that her brother was State Runner-up in Cross Country. We saved the most important topic for last. The one we had avoided for far too long.

After a week in Iowa City, Ashley returned to Des Moines to resume her summer job, Alice beside me the next morning when I awoke. I was grateful to provide her comfort but this was going to be an issue if I didn’t get it resolved. I needed to talk with Liz, to get her input on what I should do. That evening she brought over a small pan of lasagna and joined us for supper, Mrs. Skogstad taking both of them out for ice cream so they could talk. Alice came home with a smile on her face. Whatever they said must have helped because she was in her own bed the next morning.

Even though it seemed mom had so little presence in our lives, there was an emptiness around the house none of us expected. Just knowing she was there had always been enough to make us feel safe. Now there was no one we could rely upon. No one to greet us each morning. No one to watch over us at night. It made me sad. We didn’t see dad for three days. Although her death seemed to sober him up, when he returned he still slept on the couch, Alice on the lower bunk with the wedge in her door, the pathway between our bedrooms still open. He avoided mom’s bedroom, seemingly afraid to cross the threshold – as though that part of the house was haunted by her presence.

Ashley, Alice, and I understood the predicament we were in. That’s what we talked about until late into the evening after the wake. No mother, an alcoholic father who had molested his oldest daughter, and physically abused his son was something we couldn’t allow to see the light of day. If it did the chances were good we would be split up and sent to foster homes.

So we planned lies and half-truths, utilizing obfuscation with the dexterity of a spy, careful that we didn’t get caught in our daily deceptions. It was easy to forge notes with dad’s signature because the school had nothing on file, no way to know if it was the real thing – no longer expecting a note from mom.

We choreographed explanations to fit possible issues – that dad was okay with Ashley attending school in Des Moines, or he was visiting his brother for the day and Mr. Johnson was watching us, the falsehoods rolling off our tongues with little effort. It was easy because we had all learned deception at a young age. The three of us vowed to keep the dark family secrets buried with mom.

Despite the sadness from my mother’s death, I trained through the rest of the summer with a relentlessness consistency, pledging to make the upcoming year one to remember. My tribute to Mary Ann Gatens. On days I didn’t run with Steve, my daily miles gave me time to recall the moments she shared with me when I was little – the family album that Alice and I found in the living room closet fodder for these happy memories. It helped keep a smile in my heart.

Yet there was so much I didn’t know, still confused by Mr. Wilkinson’s admission at the wake that he had dated mom in high school, my initial reaction that his claim was all a fairytale. We hadn’t found anything that confirmed Mr. Wilkinson’s stories, wondering if he was embellishing the facts to give us happy memories. I had to find more about her.

Steve, Mike, and I started off my junior year of cross country where we finished track last spring, crushing opponents by huge margins, sometimes playing paper – scissors – rock the final quarter mile to decide who got the lead spot at the finish line. Our state championship the previous fall increased numbers on the team, Steve’s younger brother Danny a freshman on the squad, showing the same promise his older brother had two years ago.

The Wilkinson’s came to all the weekend meets, bringing varsity cheerleaders in their Cadillac, treating our squad like conquering heroes after every win. There was something about mom’s passing which seemed to create a bond between Mr. Wilkinson and me, his demeanor always fatherly, making a point to say hello and talk when we stopped in to pick up Mike Jr. for the Sunday morning run.

The second Sunday Doris, as she insisted we call her, invited us in for a pancake breakfast, discovering afterwards she would have to double her recipes on everything the next week or she would be short again. I could tell she enjoyed the time with us, suspecting she must have grown up in a family with lots of boys. Steve, Danny, and I walked home after the feasts, burping, and farting all the way, talking about the upcoming Bear games on TV.

The first Saturday of October I was startled in the middle of the night by a loud noise, a second thump on Alice’s door shooting me out of bed like a bolt of lightning. He looked up slowly as my door opened, the yeasty odor of beer on his breath smelling like a dead skunk. I told him the bathroom was to the right, his response only mumbles. A long stream and the toilet flushed, his glance in my direction as I stood at my bedroom door met with a steely glare which harbored no room for a response.

I waited until he crawled back on the couch, softly knocking five times on Alice’s door to let her know I was here. She surprised me by coming out of the shadows of my bedroom, giving me a hug before she laid her pillow on my bed, crawling under the covers to sleep. I was grateful she could still fit through the narrow crawl space.

Alice and I woke Sunday morning to clothes strewn randomly around the living room, some still on hangers, others dumped from the dresser with drawers that were now broken, shoes in a pile where the dining room table used to be, upended boxes filled with family photos, high school yearbooks, birthday cards, and knickknacks of thirty-eight years. All her toiletries were tossed in a roasting pan on the coffee table.

I heard the ruckus last night but wasn’t in the mood to deal with the issue, unwilling to leave my room if Alice was safe beside me. It was as if this was his latest effort to remove all reminders of her existence and reclaim the bedroom as his own.

After the morning run I stopped by to talk with Liz, hoping she could help me clean the mess, the disaster overwhelming. More than I could handle alone. The aura of our house spooked Liz as she entered the backdoor, her head settling onto shoulders like a scared turtle, following closely in my shadow as we walked through the kitchen, acting as if she half-expected to come across a gruesome murder scene in the living room.

Liz and Alice went right to work, putting underwear and bras in a grocery bag, glancing at mom’s shoes before dropping them in the box for Catholic Charities, sorting through blouses, dresses, and slacks for items to be saved and those to be tossed. Sad to say, it wasn’t much.

While they were cleaned in the living room I checked the bedroom for items he might have ignored, finding two cardboard boxes at the far end of the closet on the floor, on the shelf a color picture of dad, mom, Ashley, and me face down, the photo apparently taken at Sears before Alice was born. I stared at the picture. My parents were so young, so full of life. Was this really them? What had happened? Tears ran down my cheeks as I thought about how her life turned out so shitty.

Underneath the bed was a garment bag, almost invisible in the darkened room. I lay flat on the rug and slid it out, dust bunnies covering the Bremer’s clothing bag, two hangers exposed at the top. Whatever this was, it didn’t seem to be much.

I pulled the zipper down and gasped. It was not what I expected. Inside was a gold cheerleader’s sweater with East High in cursive across the white chenille megaphone patch, a matching pleated skirt peeking from inside the top. I gently removed it from the garment bag and held the outfit aloft, dumbfounded by the discovery.

I inhaled her scent from the clothing trying to recapture a memory, recalling the doctor’s appointment in April when she learned the cancer had metastasized. Tears filled my eyes. If only I could have made it all go away. Alice and Liz must have heard me sobbing. I held up the hanger as they entered the bedroom, wiping tears from my eyes with a forearm. Liz and Alice sat on the bed, leaning into me with hugs.

“What’s that underneath?” Alice pointed at the garment bag.

I lifted out another gold sweater, this one a cardigan, a large block E over the heart, "Captain" on the lower portion, on the opposite side a football with “Mike Wilkinson” stitched in black cursive letters. We gasped. It was as if we had just opened King Tutt’s tomb. We were all shocked by the same thought. As though we’d just learned our mother was a Hollywood starlet and she dated Robert Redford.

I suddenly realized Mr. Wilkinson had been telling the truth.

Two weeks later we hosted the conference meet on our course at City Park, the team going after a second consecutive MVC title. The night before Mr. Wilkinson invited the entire team over for a cookout, telling me I should bring Liz along so he could meet the “fine young girl he had heard so much about.” We had a great time playing pinball and ping pong in their basement, a grilled steak for each of us, everyone excited about the expected turnout for the meet tomorrow.

After we finished the cake, Liz and I knocked on a glass with our forks and told the team to move into the living room. She held my hand as I spoke.

“First of all, on behalf of the team we would like to thank Mr. & Mrs. Wilkinson for their generosity. All they have done for us. This is a great send-off for the event tomorrow.” Everyone clapped. “And I would also like to thank Raff for his leadership. We couldn’t do it without him.”

There were hoots and hollers throughout the room. I held up a finger to make sure everyone stayed.

“One last thing before you leave. Mr. & Mrs. Wilkinson have supported our team every weekend and we would like to show our appreciation for that support. C’mon up. We have something for both of you.” Liz handed them each a wrapped box. They were surprised. "Open it.” I nodded at them.

Everyone watched as Mrs. Wilkinson pulled the Adidas jacket out of the box and held it up for everyone to see. Underneath “State XC Champions” we had them add “Booster Mom.” She beamed at the honor, looking around the room to thank everyone.

Mr. Wilkinson ripped the paper off next and pulled open the box. He just stared at the gift, sighing as he held a hand over his heart. He looked up at me and smiled, turning to the rest of the room with tears in his eyes.

“If this isn’t the best gift I’ve ever gotten…I don’t know what is.” He held up his letter sweater from 1955, looking back and forth from me to the gift, his eyes expressing words his tongue couldn’t, of those happy moments from years ago. He turned to me and whispered in my ear.

“Son, you’ll never know how much this means to me.” He put a hand on my shoulder.

We won the conference meet the next day.

The target on my back was quite apparent as we warmed up for the State Championships in Marshalltown now that Mark Johnson graduated and was no longer my adversary. I noticed all the glances. All the nods. All the pointing. I understood the pressure he must have faced, the demands for his time and energy, the heavy load of expectation. My disquiet only seemed to intensify everyone’s nervousness.

Standing one hundred yards from the starting line five minutes before the race, I stared at teammates, every face drawn tight as I scanned the crew, nudging Steve with my shoulder before I spoke.

“Boys…you look like shit.” Laughter burst from their guts, the unexpected statement lightening the mood. “I want to hear Hawks on three and then see six guys running back to our box like a bunch of lunatics. The crazier the better.”

They looked at me like I was nuts. I nodded my head vigorously and smiled, their eyes lighting up.


A big smile filled my face as I led the way with arms extended, swooping side to side like an airplane, Steve skipping beside me like a ten-year-old, laughter erupting from behind us as competitors and spectators pointed at our weird antics. We were finally relaxed when the gun went off.

The first part of my race was just a blur, snapping out of my reverie at the far end of the course when Raff shouted from beside Steve and me.

“OK boys, time to make hay.”

You never know what is in an opponent’s heart during the latter stages of a race. Whether they are hanging on by a thread or idly biding their time, content to be patient and wait until the moment is at hand. With a thousand yards remaining, I glanced at Steve, and then at the small group of runners around, wondering if eyes were truly a portal to their hearts. Would a quick peek tell me yea or nay?

I winked at Steve. Here we go.

Although we did pull away from the threesome, it seemed like our advance moved with the speed of a glacier, Raff shouting “you have fifty yards” as we passed the 9th tee box and charged towards the finish line 378 yards away.

I was the 1975 State Champion, missing Mark Johnson’s record of 9:08 by two seconds. Thoughts of mom filled my heart after the race, tears of joy running down my cheeks as I walked through the chute with hands interlocked atop my head, dedicating the victory to her.

We stood on the stage with arms over each other’s shoulders, celebrating our second team title.

When I got home Saturday afternoon, Mr. Johnson took a picture of me with the State Meet medal around my neck, secretly telling Alice and Liz to kiss me when he counted to three. After some celebratory ice cream at his house we rode bikes over to St. Joseph’s cemetery, looking up and waving as a flock of geese honked overhead, dropping bikes in the grass beside mom’s headstone. I wrapped arms over shoulders of Liz and Alice, speaking with tears in my eyes.

“Well mom. I did it. I hope you are proud.” I pulled the girls in tight and kissed their heads, pulling off the medal. “This is for you.”

The celebration on Sunday at the Wilkinson’s was bittersweet because mom wasn’t there to share it with me. Before I left the party that evening, Mr. Wilkinson pulled me aside.

“I’m as sad as you that your mother couldn’t be around to see your victory. Mary Ann would have been thrilled to see you win. She always talked of you so proudly.” He sighed and reached out to squeeze my shoulder. He continued.

“One more thing before you go. After I found out about your mother’s cancer we met for coffee each week, both of us laughing over the fun moments we shared so many years ago. It made her so happy…me so happy.” He sighed. “And we discussed a lot of things that I won’t go into right now, but she spoke with such pride of how much you three meant to her, how pleased she was to see how well you all turned out.”

Mr. Wilkinson used a thumb and finger to wipe away the tears.

“Mary Ann was sorry to leave this world but she knew you were ready to take charge of the family.”

I wasn’t so sure.

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