|Family Matters - Page 2|
At 80, P.J. didn't give a damn about the rules: after a quick lesson, he pressed me into service as his brakeman, even though I hadn't taken the required test; and he drove too fast. Zack loved having his mom wave the red flag and blow the whistles for stop and go and clear. Unfazed by the scare, he trusted P.J., even after we'd derailed in the midst of a speedy descent. P.J. would take us on his Saturday chore runs collecting the garbage cans on his flatcars, and he volunteered to haul the children at all of Zack's birthday parties, even though he'd show up late enough to make me worry that he'd forgotten.
Zack adored his own personal engineer, and, often with a bouquet from our garden in hand, he'd climb the stairs into the office, a retired, red, Southern Pacific caboose, to visit with P.J's girlfriend, Irene. No longer able to ride the rails, she'd sit by the wood stove doing secretarial tasks, happy to make official LALS badges for Zack's stuffed bears.
As Zack's illness progressed, P.J. never commented on the skim-milk-blue shadows under his eyes, and never asked about the swelling on Zack's neck and cheek that prevented him from turning his head to the right. Then one day, he quietly remarked to me, "I noticed a while back that Zack is sick, and I can tell how things are going." I didn't have to explain anything to him: he just knew, and accepted my confirmation with the equanimity of someone who was used to bad news. Later, when Zack was out of earshot, I told P.J. what I'd revealed to almost no one—that my boy had AIDS, contracted from a transfusion at birth.
We'd been given the death sentence right before his fourth birthday party, in 1986, and with a couple of exceptions, I couldn't tell the families whom we'd invited to the Live Steamers to celebrate because I didn't want my boy to end his life as a pariah. Because of the fears of a mother who knew our secret, Zack had to have two birthday cakes: a big one to share, and another, smaller one, which held the four candles he'd blow out. (I explained the two cakes to Zack by telling him one was special, just for him, to take home.) People were terrified of AIDS then—even a few of the nurses at our hospital refused to go near children they'd previously cared for, once they'd found out that the kids were HIV positive. But P.J. didn't flinch; his behavior with Zack never changed.
Eventually, Zack—by now five and half—was too ill to ride the trains; he could only sit on a bench holding his panda bear, Bumby, and watch them go by. P.J. knew it was time to tell me, and revealed that he was Phinneas J. Bresee, a mortician, retired. I found myself staring for a few minutes, stunned, at the business card in my hand that confirmed it.