Rite of Passage


By Peggy


April 2002




Thanks: To Kenda and Icecat for the eleventh hour beta, the encouragement and the kind words. To the members of the birthday conspiracy (and you know who you are!) who made turning forty not just painless but downright fun.  To Donna for encouraging, nitpicking, challenging, nagging and most especially for being my friend.


Dedication: This is for Susan G, Kenda and Donna … who understand. And of course, for my mom.


Visit my fanfic at: http://members.tripod.com/pg0314/index.htm




The shrill ringing of the telephone startled him out of a deep sleep.  It took another two or three rings for reality to penetrate Johnny's sleep-fogged brain.  It was the phone. And it was only ... he rolled over and squinted at the alarm clock ... 4:30 in the morning.  And suddenly he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who was calling and what they had to tell him. Heart pounding, he fumbled for the receiver.  "Sam?"


"Yeah," his older brother's voice was subdued.  "It's me.  The hospital just called."


"She's gone." It wasn't a question.


"About twenty minutes ago. The nurse said it looked like she just drifted away in her sleep."


It wasn't a surprise.  She'd been very ill for a long time. And though it had been her idea to move into the nursing home when it was no longer safe for her to live alone, Johnny knew she'd never been happy there, that she'd simply gone to bide her time until the end.  When her health had begun to deteriorate rapidly and she'd been moved to the hospital three weeks ago, he'd known the time was close. He'd visited her on his last weekend off and she'd been in misery: bloated and struggling to breathe because of the kidney failure, disoriented from the seizures.  He'd left her room in tears and prayed for the end to come sooner rather than later.


It wasn't a surprise. So why did he feel like he'd just been hit in the chest with a two by four?


"John?" His brother's voice was full of concern. "Are you okay?"


"Yeah, I'm," he had to stop and clear the sudden thickness from his throat before he could continue.  "I'm all right. You?"


"Hanging in there."


"I guess we need to call someone, huh? To make arrangements, I mean."


"The hospital said they'd contact the funeral home and that the funeral director would probably call me later in the morning.  You want me to go ahead and make the arrangements or wait 'til you get here?"


"I'd like to be there, if you don't mind waiting."


"No, I don't mind."


They were silent for a long moment, neither of them seeming to know what to say next. Finally, Johnny roused himself enough to sit up in bed and snap on a light.  Blinking against the sudden brightness, he cradled the phone between his shoulder ear and reached for the jeans he'd discarded on the floor a few hours earlier.  "I need to take care of a few things on this end," he told his brother, "but I'll be there as soon as I can."


"Take your time, Johnny.  There's no rush."


No, he supposed there wasn't. Not now, anyway.


They said their good-byes and John replaced the receiver, noting almost dispassionately that his hands were shaking.  Suddenly he was bone weary and he leaned over, resting his elbows on his knees and pressing his trembling hands to his face.   He had a million and one things to do. There were people he needed to call.  He had to dig his one and only good suit out of the dark recesses of the closet and hope it wasn't too badly wrinkled. He had to pack. He had to gas up the car.  Had to arrange for one of the neighbors to take in his newspaper and his mail.  Had to cancel his Saturday night dinner date with Denise. Had to call the station and arrange for time off. Had to make the long drive home to Calaveras County. 


But he just sat there on the edge of his bed and shivered for a very long time.  Finally, just as the first rays of the rising sun were slipping through the window blinds, he roused himself and reached for the phone.  "Captain Hookraider?  This is John Gage. I'm sorry to wake you but I needed to let you know I won't be in to work this morning.  My mom just died and I'm gonna be off the rest of the week."





"I really think she'd like this one, don't you, John?"


He took a deep breath and counted to ten in an effort to keep from screaming in frustration.  "Gram, I really think that's too fussy," he said for at least the fourth time. His mother had been a simple person with simple tastes. She wouldn't have wanted anything showy or ostentatious, Johnny was sure of it. But his grandmother seemed equally sure that the opposite was true and they'd been at loggerheads ever since they'd arrived at the mortuary to make the funeral arrangements.


"But it's so pretty," his grandmother offered, stroking the brightly colored wedding ring quilt that lined the mahogany coffin.


It wasn't pretty.  It was hideous ... at least in his opinion.  And it cost more than two month's salary. Part of him felt petty for worrying about the cost of a casket. But his mother had no life insurance and neither he nor Sam were getting rich in their chosen professions. 


"It is pretty," he lied. "But Mom didn't do quilting, Gram.  She didn't even own a quilt. And I really, really think she'd want something simpler."


"Katherine, what do you think?"  His grandmother ignored him completely, turning to ask his aunt's opinion.


Johnny threw up his hands in aggravation and crossed the room to where his brother stood in the corner doing his best to hide behind a potted palm.  "They're driving me crazy," he whispered. "We've been here for," he glanced at his watch, "THREE hours."


Sam smiled understandingly.  "I know. This is exactly why I didn't want them to come. You and I would've had all the arrangements made in half the time. But how could we say no?"


"We couldn't," Johnny sighed, leaning against the wall and watching his grandparents and his mother's sister drift from one coffin to another, discussing the merits of each one in endless detail. "They're her parents. And as hard as this is for us, it's ten times worse for them. But, God, I want out of here.  I need some fresh air. And if I have to listen to piped in organ music for much longer I swear to God I'm gonna snap and kill someone."


"Go for it," Sam whispered back. "We'll bury them in that ugly quilt casket."


Johnny pressed a fist hard against his mouth in an effort not to laugh out loud and glared at his brother who just smirked and shrugged unrepentantly.


Across the room, Aunt Kate called out, "Boys, what do you think of this one?"


It was white … with hand-carved cherubs on the handles.  "God help us," Sam breathed.


"We're gonna be here all damn day, aren't we?"








Standing in the doorway, Johnny surveyed the room where his mother had spent the last year of her life.  He remembered how gut wrenching it had been to move her into the nursing home.  He'd thought long and hard about quitting his job and moving back home to care for her. But deep down, he'd known it wouldn't work. Her health was too fragile, her dietary requirements too strict, her schedule of medication and therapy and dialysis too complex. Even with Sam's help and his own paramedic training, he simply couldn't have handled it. 


So they'd moved her into this tiny, sterile room and done their best to personalize it and make it into some semblance of a home. They'd piled books on the nightstand, lined the windowsill with family photographs, lugged in the ancient black and white Motorola she refused to replace with a newer model, hung a calendar on the wall that featured the sickeningly adorable pictures of kittens she was so fond of, lined a handful of favorites from her vast music box collection on top of the TV, covered her bed with a colorful afghan.  None of it had ever really worked.   They were all just going through the motions and they knew it.  But they'd felt the need to make the effort just the same.


Now, with all his mother's belongings packed in cardboard boxes in the hall, Johnny saw the room for what it always had been: a cold, impersonal space where people came to die. She had deserved better.  Everyone deserved better.   Hoisting the last box, he pulled the door shut behind him and prayed he'd never see the inside of such a room again.






Two of Sam's buddies, men Johnny remembered from high school, took the brothers out for a drink after the viewing.  A couple of hours spent at a corner table in a smoky bar, drinking beer, watching sports and reminiscing about the old days had been just what Johnny needed.  He was feeling almost relaxed as he crept into his nephew's bedroom and slipped between the sheets of the bottom bunk.


"Uncle Johnny?"  Seven-year-old Scott's upside down face peered at him from the top bunk.


Johnny glanced at the alarm clock, barely visible in the faint glow of the GI Joe nightlight. It was well after midnight.  "Hey, sport.  Kinda late for you to be awake isn't it?"


"I can't sleep," the boy sighed.


Sam's wife hadn't brought the children to the viewing.  And three-year-old Angela would be staying with a babysitter in the morning while the rest of the family attended the services. It would be Scott's first funeral. "Worried about tomorrow?"  Johnny asked.


"A little."


"You don't have to go if you don't want to," he reminded the boy kindly.


"But if Nana's watching from heaven she would be sad if I wasn't there."


"Maybe a little," Johnny acknowledged.  "But she'd understand if you didn't want to come."


"No, I want to," the child said resolutely. "But …"


"But?" he prompted.


"Uncle Johnny, have you ever seen a dead person?"


"Yeah, I have.  Lots of times."


"What … um … what do they look like?  I mean, they don't look like the zombies do in the movies, do they?"


"Nana won't, no.  She'll just look like she's sleeping."


"Will it be scary?"


"Maybe, a little scary," Johnny admitted.  "But it's okay to be scared. And your mom and dad and I will all be there."


"Are you scared?"


Looking up into the troubled brown eyes so like his own, Johnny couldn't lie.  "Yeah, Scott, I guess I am a little scared."


They stared at each other in the dim light for a long time, Scott chewing his lower lip and looking as if there was something else on his mind.


"You want to sleep down here with me, buddy?"  John finally asked.


The boy nodded shyly and scrambled down the ladder. He clambered into the narrow bed and snuggled tight against Johnny's side, all knobby knees and elbows and shaggy hair that smelled like grass and sweat.  "G'night, Uncle Johnny."

"G'night, Scott."  


The child was asleep in seconds but the man lay awake for hours.






He sat in the first row of mourners, Sam on his left, his hugely pregnant cousin Ellen shifting uncomfortably on the metal folding chair on his right. He chanted mechanically along with the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Said 'amen' in all the right places. Chuckled along with everyone else when his Aunt Kate told a humorous story from his mother's childhood. Patted his brother's arm and handed him a handkerchief when Sam began to cry silently.  And yet later, when everyone commented on what a lovely service it had been, he could hardly remember any of it.


He only remembered the shadows on the dark paneled walls where the sun streamed through the lace curtains that hung in the mortuary windows. He only remembered staring determinedly at those shadows, those curtains, and not making eye contact with anyone.  Because he'd known that if he did … if he looked up and saw the grief on his brother's face, saw the tears in his grandmother's eyes, saw the compassion on the elderly minister's weathered visage, saw his mother laid out in the coffin in her favorite blue dress … that the slender thread of his self control would snap and he'd begin to weep and never stop.  And even though he knew that no one would think badly of him for it, he simply couldn't allow himself to fall apart. Though he couldn't have said why.






The weather turned stiflingly hot the day after the funeral so the final days of Johnny's stay were lazy ones.  The brothers did little more than tend to the endless paperwork that a death in the family seemed to generate, play with the kids and slouch on the sofa watching baseball.  When the sun went down they drifted out onto the back porch in hopes of finding a cool breeze and just passed the time until the mosquitoes drove them back inside. 


Johnny yelped and nearly jumped out of his skin when Sam crept up behind him and laid an icy beer bottle against the back of his neck.


"Just trying to help you cool off," the elder brother said innocently as he dropped down on the porch step beside the younger and handed over the bottle.


"Bastard," John said without rancor.


They sat in comfortable silence nursing their beers and watching the stars wink on one by one as the sky grew steadily darker. 


"So, you're heading home tomorrow?" Sam asked finally.


"Yeah. Right after breakfast, I guess.  Gotta work the day after tomorrow so I'd like to get back early and rest up a little."


"The kids are gonna miss you."


"Yeah?"  Johnny cocked an eyebrow at his brother.  "What about you?  You gonna miss me?"


"Me?  Nah.  I'll be glad to see your skinny butt going out the door."


John grinned. "I'll miss you too.  These last couple days have been the most time we've spent just hanging out together in years. It was kind of nice … you know, in spite of everything. But it's time I got back to real life."


Sam nodded.  "Yeah, I know what you mean. It's good to take some time for yourself when you lose a loved one but sooner or later you have to get back to the daily grind.  And speaking of that, I don't have to be at the office until 9:30.  You want to hang around that long?  Maybe go out for breakfast?"


"That'd be nice."


"We could stop by the cemetery too."


Johnny shook his head. "Sam, I'm not ready for that."


"C'mon, Johnny, it would be nice to go together."


"I'm not ready," he repeated firmly.


"I really think it would be a good idea if …"


"No," he snapped, cutting his brother off.  "I told you I'm not ready and I meant it.  Just drop it, okay?"


"No, it's not okay," Sam snapped back.  "I'm just trying to help you, John."


"By getting on my case?"


"By trying to get you to do the right thing."


"The right thing?" Irritated, Johnny turned to glare at his brother.  "The right thing according to who, Sam?  You?  Well, maybe it's right for you, but it's not right for me and I don't understand why you'd push me to do something that I've told you I'm not ready for."


"I'm not trying to push you around," Sam replied impatiently.  "I'm just a little concerned because you've been sort of detached about this whole thing."


"Detached?" Johnny was pissed, and it was evident both in his raised voice and his blazing eyes.  "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"


"Now don't go getting all upset," Sam pleaded. "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant … look, I know you've got to be hurting as much as I am but you've been so damn calm about the whole thing. Hell, I haven't even seen you shed a single tear. You cried buckets when Dad died and I don't like seeing you holding in your emotions the way you are."


"For crying out loud, Sam, I was FIFTEEN when Dad died!"

"I know that! But it's still not healthy for you to hold your emotions in now!  You need to let go, let yourself feel the grief or it's just going to eat you up inside. I thought going to the grave would help you get in touch with your feelings and maybe …"


"Christ, Sam," Johnny interrupted, "do you hear yourself?  Do you hear what you're saying? I know you think you're trying to help but you're doing it by telling me how to grieve."


"I am not," Sam protested.


"Well, then what the hell would you call it?" Johnny sat his bottle down a little more forcefully than necessary and pushed himself off the step, too full of nervous energy to sit still a second longer.  "When you tell me going to the grave is 'the right thing' and get on my case when I say no? When you tell me I can't be calm, that I have to cry like a baby or whatever it is you think I oughta be doing ... what the hell is that but telling me how to grieve?"  He pushed his hand through his hair in frustration. "Damn it, Sam, I couldn't have gotten through this without you. You're the one who kept me sane when everyone else was making me nuts.  Please don't do this to me now, okay? Just let me handle it in my own way, okay? Please? "


Sam glared back at him mutinously for a long moment, but said nothing.  Johnny sat back down with a thump and went back to drinking his beer. This time the silence between them was awkward.


"Didn't mean to yell at you," Johnny finally mumbled.


"Didn't mean to boss you around," came the quiet reply.


"Ah, I guess you can't help yourself. It's what big brothers do."  It was John's way of extending an olive branch and Sam flashed him a grateful smile.


"So, you still want to have breakfast with me tomorrow, even if I am bossy?"


"As long as you don't try to tell me what to order, yeah."


"It's a deal."


Sam nudged Johnny with a shoulder.  Johnny nudged back … hard.  Sam cuffed him on the back of the head and went to get more beer.





He'd been prepared for the chorus of "Sorry to hear about your mom, Johnny" that greeted him on his first day back at work. The awkward hug from Chet, of all people, surprised him a bit but he merely thumped the other man on the back and murmured his appreciation of the gesture. Then he smiled, thanked everyone for the flowers they'd sent to the funeral and the casseroles he'd found waiting in his freezer.  And as far as he was concerned, that was the end of it.  Time for business as usual.


What he hadn't been prepared for was the uncomfortable tension that promptly sprang up between he and his shift-mates. It became clear to him pretty quickly that they didn't quite know how to treat him. So they alternated between trying to pretend that nothing had changed and treating him as if he were made of porcelain.


Marco and Chet were laughing uproariously about something and stopped cold when Johnny walked into the day room. They cast furtive glances at him and at each other, looking as if they felt guilty for enjoying themselves in the face of his loss.


Cap pulled him aside, put a fatherly arm around his shoulders and said, "Now, John, if you feel like you need to go home for any reason, you just say the word and I'll find someone to fill in for you."


Mike kept pushing food at him. Roy didn't say much, they'd talked on a phone a few times while Johnny was off and he'd expressed his sympathies then, but he watched his partner like a hawk … a fact that didn't go unnoticed by the younger man. 


And it only got worse when they went out on calls. It seemed like there was someone Johnny knew at every rescue: fellow firefighters, police officers, an old girlfriend, an off-duty nurse from Harbor General.  If someone wasn't hugging him or patting him on the back and offering their condolences, someone else was asking the dreaded question, "How do you feel?"


Johnny had to bite his tongue more than once to keep from snapping, "I just got back from burying my mother. How do you think I feel?"


He knew they meant well but all he really wanted was to get back into the routine of everyday life. That was why he'd come back to work, after all.  The constant attention only made him feel obligated to prove that he was okay, to continually be upbeat and full of energy. It was exhausting and he found himself counting the hours until he could go home.


The worst moment of all came in the evening, during one of their many trips to Rampart.  Betty, Dixie's second in command, had rushed up to Johnny and embraced him tearfully, telling him she knew just how he felt.


He was surprised because he hadn't heard that Betty's mother had died. The sprightly septuagenarian was a retired nurse who often volunteered at Rampart and the last time Johnny had seen her she'd appeared as vigorous as ever. "I'm so sorry, Betty," he said sincerely.  "I didn't know Muriel had passed away."


"Oh, I didn't mean my mother," Betty hastened to reassure him.  "She's fit as fiddle.  I meant my grandmother. She passed away last month and I miss her something awful."


Johnny saw red. If Muriel was in her seventies how old must the grandmother have been? Ninety? A hundred?  He liked Betty, he really did. She was a kind person and a competent nurse. But if she thought that the death of her elderly grandparent somehow equaled the loss of his fifty-five year old mother, she was nuts. Not in a million years, did she know just how he felt.  His irritation must have shown on his face because Betty stopped her rambling and stared at him in concern. "Johnny, are you okay?"


He never got a chance to answer her because at just that moment, Mike Morton appeared at Betty's shoulder with the message that Dixie urgently needed her help in exam room three.


"Dixie urgently needs her help?" Johnny asked skeptically.


"That's what I just said," Morton replied with a cryptic smile.


"We just brought that patient in and she's got a simple ankle fracture.  There's nothing urgent about it."


"I know that and you know that. But Betty just came on duty a few minutes ago and she doesn't know that."


Johnny was dumbfounded.  Had Morton just done something nice for him?  "Why'd you do that?"


"Because I DO know how you feel," the physician replied simply.  "Or at least I have a pretty good idea. My dad died of a heart attack in his early forties. And I ran into plenty of people like Betty when it happened.  They mean well but they just don't understand that when you lose a parent that young it's a whole different ballgame.  Not only do you have the grief to deal with, you feel …"




"Exactly.  Cheated out of all those years that everyone else gets to spend with their parents and you don't."


The two men exchanged a knowing look. Then Morton seemed to notice the chart in his hands for the first time and announced his need to get back to work.  "But if you ever want to talk," he said as he turned away, "you know where to find me."


"Yeah, I do," Johnny replied gratefully. "Thanks, Doc."





A harried looking nurse met them at the front door of the personal care home.  "I'm sorry, guys," she said by way of greeting, "but it's a false alarm. Our newest resident is having a bit of a hard time adjusting to life here.  She got a little agitated when her family got ready to go home for the evening and started to hyperventilate. Her daughter panicked and made the call to you folks instead of walking across the hall to the nurse's station and telling me." The woman rolled her eyes, making it plain what she thought of that and continued, "Mrs. Easton is fine now and I was just about to get in touch with dispatch and cancel the call when I saw you pull in."


"That's okay," Roy replied with an easy smile.  "It happens. But since we're here, you want us to go ahead and take a look at her?"


"Well," the nurse frowned indecisively, "it probably would make Mrs. Easton's daughter feel better to have her checked out. Are you sure you don't mind?"


"Not a bit."


"All right then, come this way." 


Gathering their equipment, the paramedics followed the woman down a long hallway.


"Mrs. Easton," the nurse called out as she ushered them into a tiny room at the end of the hall, "these gentlemen are paramedics and they'd like to check you out and make sure you're all right.  Would that be okay?"


"I guess so," came a quavering response from the woman huddled on the bed. "But I'm feeling much better now. I don't want to be a bother …"


"It's no bother at all," Roy reassured the patient as he entered the room and perched on the edge of her bed. 


Johnny started in right behind him, took one look at the room and the teary-eyed woman occupying the bed … and froze in his tracks.


The nightstand was piled with books.  Plants and family photos lined the windowsill.  A 'Snoopy' calendar hung askew on one wall.  A row of snow globes adorned the top of the television on the dresser and a brightly colored afghan covered the bed.  The tearful woman lying beneath it even looked a bit like his mother.   He thought he was going to be sick.


Standing in the doorway, John watched his partner chat with the woman and tease a smile out of her while taking her vitals.  There were things he should be doing: getting out the biophone, putting oxygen on the patient, setting up for the EKG Rampart was sure to order.  But he did none of it.  He simply stood unmoving on the threshold, the biophone dangling from his nerveless fingers.


He saw Roy turn towards him, saw the other man's lips moving but all he could hear was his own heartbeat thundering in his ears. His chest was tight. It was hard to breathe. He felt lightheaded.  The walls were closing in on him.  Panic attack, some small, still coherent part of his mind supplied.  As his partner rose from the bedside, face etched with concern, and took a step towards him, Johnny dropped the biophone and fled.


When he hit the parking lot a big part of him wanted to just keep right on running but Johnny knew he couldn't. He already felt tremendously guilty for leaving Roy to deal with the patient alone. He couldn't make matters worse by leaving the scene altogether.  So he sought refuge in the corner of a gazebo that sat on the nursing facility's tiny side yard. Huddled on a wooden bench in a shadowy corner, he wrapped his arms around his chest and struggled to calm himself, to regulate his panicky, out of control breathing.


Relax, he counseled himself as he would a patient.  Don't think, just concentrate on your breathing and relax.


It didn't help.  He couldn't get the image of the patient out of his mind. She'd looked so unhappy, curled there on her narrow bed in her depressing little room. She'd looked terrified, lost, and hopeless. Just the way his mother had looked the last time he'd seen her lying on a narrow bed in a depressing little room.


He berated himself for not quitting his job and going home when her health began to nosedive. For not finding a way to make it work so that she could have spent her last days at home surrounded by the people who loved her.  For not doing more for her, spending more time with her, being there when she died.  For not being a better man, a better person, a better son …


The rational part of his mind whispered that he'd done the best he could and that his mother had understood that. But at that moment, the knowledge didn't make him feel any better.


"Oh Mom," he whispered brokenly.  "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."  The tears he'd been holding back for so long clogged his throat and obliterated his voice. And, burying his face in his hands, Johnny wept for his mother.


It took him a long time to cry himself out but eventually he did.  And as he swiped roughly at his wet cheeks with shaking fingers, a neatly pressed blue handkerchief appeared in front of his burning eyes.




Johnny didn't even have the energy to be embarrassed. He just took the offered handkerchief, scrubbed his ravaged face and blew his nose noisily.  He started to hand the cloth back, then thought better of it and shoved it in his own pocket.


"Are you okay?"  Roy's voice was infinitely gentle.


"Not really," he replied unsteadily. 


"What happened in there?" 


"I don't know.  I just … that place, that woman … it hit a little too close to home, I guess.  I'm sorry I bailed out on you like that."


"It's okay."


"It's NOT okay," he said tiredly.  "I walked out on a patient, left you alone …"

"She's fine," Roy said reasonably.  "It was an anxiety attack just like the nurse said."

"But I didn't stick around long enough to find that out, did I?" Johnny asked bitterly, suddenly furious with himself for the way he'd behaved. "What if it hadn't been an anxiety attack? What if she'd really needed me?"


"Then I'd have sent someone out to get you and you'd have come back and done your job."  Roy's unwavering faith was touching and only made Johnny feel worse.


"Don't do that."


"Do what?" 


"Don't cut me slack like that. I don't deserve it. I fucked up, Roy, and we both know it."


"I don't know anything of the sort."  Roy moved to sit beside his partner on the bench and lay a gentle hand on the younger man's shoulder.  "Look, it's only been two weeks since your mom died.  You're bound to be a little emotional …"


"A little?"


"Okay, more than a little," Roy admitted with a slight smile.  "But I think what happened tonight has been building for a while now and it's probably a good thing you got it out of your system."


"That doesn't excuse me running out on a patient."


"Maybe not," Roy allowed.  "But you're only human, Johnny. We all make mistakes.  And in this case, no real harm was done so don't be so hard on yourself."


Johnny didn't say anything to that, just curled in on himself, propping his elbows on his knees and dropping his head to stare at the floor.


Roy's rubbed a few comforting circles on the younger man's hunched back, then rose with a quiet, "Be right back," and disappeared back into the building.


He returned a few minutes later carrying a Styrofoam cup brimming with water. "Thanks." Johnny accepted it gratefully.  The cool liquid felt wonderfully soothing to his dry, aching throat.


"Drink all of it," Roy advised.  "You're bound to be dehydrated. Then I'm going to drive you home."


"Home?"  He sat up so abruptly he spilled half the water down the front of this shirt.  "I can't go home, Roy. We're in the middle of a shift!"


"I called Cap while I was inside.  He's arranging a replacement for you right now and I have strict orders to see that you get safely home."


"Oh man!"  Johnny ran a hand through his hair.  "I wish you hadn't done that. What the hell are the guys gonna think of me?"


"That you lost someone very important to you and you're still grieving?  That you need a little more time to get your feet back under you? There's no shame in what you're feeling, Johnny."


"I know," he sighed, suddenly feeling weary down to the core of his soul.  "I just hate this so much, Roy. I really, really hate feeling this way. I thought I was prepared for it, you know? For her to die, I mean. I've known for ten years that my mother wouldn't live to old age. Hell, the last time I saw her, I prayed for this. So why is it hitting me so hard?" he asked helplessly.


"Because she was your mother. Because losing a parent is a painful rite of passage in anyone's life, no matter how old they are or how much time they've had to prepare themselves."


"I feel like an orphan," Johnny said bitterly.  "I'm a grown man. I'm going to be twenty-nine years old in a few weeks.  I've been taking care of myself for years. And here I sit feeling abandoned, feeling so god damned angry with her for leaving me that I don't know what to do. Isn't that the stupidest thing you ever heard?"


"I don't think it's stupid at all," Roy said quietly.  "I think you're just a son who misses his mother."





Epilogue: Sixteen months later


"Take your time," Sam said as Johnny climbed out of the car. "I'll be right here when you're ready."


John nodded once before setting off alone down the winding path.


Carefully laying a bunch of tiger lilies at the base of the small granite marker, he lowered himself to sit on the grass.


"Hi, Mom," he said quietly.  "Sorry it took me so long to get here."


The End







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