Judith Kerrigan Ribbens


…three and a half years ago…

We’ve had years of college students here now, all boys. Finally we have  someone older again. Marthe is delighted. I think she has a crush on  him! Tom Hartmann is our new boarder. A John Wayne type and a retired firefighter, Tom has already suffered one bout of “the Big C”, as he  refers to it. A large man with sparse white hair, he looks still gaunt from chemo and radiation. He lost his wife and daughter to divorce long years ago.

“Facing up to things wasn’t her strong suit. Most of my money went to the docs  and now to her for our Sally, our daughter. We had her late in life.  She’s almost eighteen now.” He was at the kitchen table drinking some lukewarm milky coffee during our interview this morning.​

“I can’t drink straight hot coffee anymore. My innards never totally recovered. I have to tell you that I really don’t think I’ve got it  licked but the docs say I have for now and I’ll take whatever I can get. I came here because I talked to Marthe at the library the other day and I know you have a room and I know you’re no stranger to hard times. I don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t know the score. If you’re not ok with that, just say so.”

“I’m ok with it if you understand that at times it’s difficult. It’s not over for us. I have two boys and a girl here that still miss their dad. It’s been messy at times.”

“I can deal with messy. I like kids too.”

Despite his tough guy stance, Tom is a gentle man who spends long hours with Cory and Alex after school telling them the stories of his life and weaving homework into his stories. They fish along the river all the time. It didn’t take long and they were following him around as they had tried to follow their dad, who I now realized had actually spent precious little time with them due to his work. I’m in one of my angry stages, mad as hell at Art for not being here.

…months later…

Tom has spent less than a year with us, teaching the boys and even Marnie to do “guy stuff’”. When he came home and let us know he had cancer again, I became afraid for the kids, thinking they would again feel abandoned. Tom sees to it they are not. He has drawn them, and all of us, into his process of dying, which he faces with more and more dignity the sicker he becomes. His daughter has refused to come to see him, which has wounded him deeply.

He gave me Power of Attorney for health care and then for financial decisions. Marthe nurses him during the day and they have fallen in love—so sweet to watch. Marnie comes after school and brings The Girls to chatter endlessly with him on the subject of boys, soliciting his advice on male behavior.

“It takes his mind off his problems,” she informed me, with all the assured wisdom of a teenager.

When it was time for Tom to die, Cory announced they would have Tom’s “Death Party” and he insisted on cake and ice cream and balloons, using his own money.
After we had eaten, Cory sang all the songs he had sung at his father’s wake. A week later, as Tom died, Cory and Alex sat on the bed and held Tom as he took his last breath. Marthe held one hand and I put my hands on his head. Marnie curled up and cried at his feet. Some people are just living and dying miracles! He was. Cory announced that when he grew up he wanted to help people  die. Grace! Pure grace! After that their mood lightened. They are full of life since. I’m better too.


…two years ago, January…
It was Marnie who found out Caitlin has cancer. Caitlin would never have told anyone. Yesterday Marnie came to me and asked if she could give Caitlin a rock to give her strength. I asked what for. She didn’t realize I didn’t know. When she told me, I could hardly breathe for fear for Cait.Whether Cait wanted it or not, there was no stopping Marnie. “We have to get her one that’s very beautiful! Green, for hope! There’s a rock shop in town, a New Age place. I scoped it out. Can we go there and find something?’

We did. We found a beautiful green-blue rock the size of a large egg.

Cory, Marnie and I went to her house. Cory had asked to be the one to give her the rock. He and Marnie fought for two hours over who would do it. I finally refereed it, tired of hearing them.

“You’ll do it together or not at all.”

The Fitzgeralds live in a rundown home at the end of School Place. Paint is peeling off inside and out, an attempt at a garden is overgrown with weeds, and the garage door is hanging on two old rusty hinges. Liam, her youngest, answered the door and took us to Caitlin in the kitchen.

“This is for you, Mrs. Fitzgerald,” they said in chorus and set the rock on her table.

Cory then proceeded to tell her all about how he helped Tom Bradford die.

“I’ll help you die too if you want, but I’d like it better if you didn’t.”

She almost cried, but covered it with a laugh.

“He sure is your kid, Annie. Cory, I prefer to live too but if I have to die, I want you at my funeral. You have to sing.”

She looks so bad! Her hair is limp, her skin sallow. We looked at each other for long minutes.

“Not at my best, Annie. Not looking good right now.”

“You or the cancer?


She was breathing with some difficulty.

“Where is it?"

“A breast. Maybe both. I  have to be x-rayed again tomorrow. I’m on chemo. It’s a bitch!”

“I can’t imagine. I really can’t.”

She turned to Liam. “Make these people some tea, will you please or get one of your brothers to do it? We’re gonna be talking for a while.”

She grinned. “Time for gossip! There’s something you should know.”

“You’re incorrigible!” We waited for the tea. In my wildest imagination I couldn’t have guessed what was coming. She called in Owen and Sean and motioned for them to talk.

“They’ve just heard this on the street.”

Owen began.
“Big John’s been missing for a month and is presumed dead. He was hunting in Montana far up in the northern Bitterroot Range. When no one  heard from him for days, they sent rangers up. They couldn’t find him.”

“All his gear was there, except for his hunting rifle.” Sean continued, “but the territory is so big they never found his body. There’s no funeral.”
Caitlin continued. “Jonny O has been keeping it quiet. He stands to inherit the construction firm and other money from Big John’s unknown sources of income. Rumor is it’s a ton of money. He sure doesn’t want any seven-year wait! He’s been quietly taking over.
“You already know Jenny O’s been gone since your husband died. No one knows where. Mary Bridget is in an expensive nursing home for the mentally ill. Crazy as a bed bug! And now I’ll tell you the rest!”
Caitlin shook her head.
“That family was and is a bad one to live in. They’re all going to be happy Big John‘s gone. He was a bastard to all of them. He treated Jonny O like shit, always putting him down. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jenny O wasn’t abused as well. God only knows what he did to Mary Bridget! My  mother knew her back in the day. She was a good girl, a happy girl when she married him. I’ve had tough times but nothing like she did. I wouldn't be surprised at anything that might have happened."
"I wish I knew what happened to Jenny, where she is, and if she's all right. " I said. "It's so odd she just disappeared like she did."

Our conversation drifted to other topics and we talked over old times for hours, our kids listening with amazement and disbelief as we told of the scrapes we got into and out of.

“Jesus, Mary, Joseph! And I thought we were bad!” Sean folded his arms across his chest, looking indignant.

“Watch your language! There’s ladies present!” Caitlin roared with laughter. “And I’m not one of them!”

She collapsed into a coughing fit. Marnie jumped up to hold her. She went on anyway.

“You got a good girl here, Annie. She’s welcome in my house anytime.”

"And you all in ours, Caitlin. I’ve got your back whenever you need me. I’ll help you out any way I can. You know we still don’t have Art’s share of The Firm, but we’ve got food and shelter to share if you need it. That’s not charity either. I want to share. I’m feeling cut off from my roots here again. I’m working a lot more now.”

To my embarrassment I began to cry. Here I had come to comfort her and I was finding out how, in my grief, and with more work, I’d cut myself off again from the people I needed. We stood up and hugged each other for a long time.

There was one last thing she had to tell me. She sent the kids away first.
“Annie, watch your back! I’ve been hearing nasty rumors .about The Firm. Something’s wrong there. Something’s been wrong for a long time, even before Art was dead. I know you didn’t hear this years ago. Those rich bitches you know won't tell you. They only want to look like perfect wives of prominent men and if there's something scandalous, they'll only talk behind your back. I kinda thought you were like them after you moved to The House, but I know you aren’t. Old Mr. Houlihan was right. He said you were still one of us. But Art wasn’t. He changed. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just hid what he’s always been.” She held up her hands.

“I know! I know! I’m saying what you don’t want to hear! You always did see Art through  rose-colored glasses. Some of us here didn’t. We saw another side. I think he treated you different. I think he loved you. Just be careful! Don’t trust Jonny O!”

“He did treat me well, Caitlin, and I don’t trust Jonny O.”
I thought of telling her what he did, how he tried to rape me, but I couldn’t. It would heap more on her and she didn’t need more right now.

We ended our talk with our heart sign

. …a few weeks later… Caitlin
is weak from both radiation and chemo. I took over everything for her. As luck would have it we had no takers for the extra rooms this semester, only Marthe as boarder. I have seven boys with me now on my third floor. Caitlin is across the hall from me. Marnie moved into the one room left. Money is tight but we’re making it. The doctor says treatment is working but it will be a long time before they can be sure. I damn well will not let her die too!

Mr. Houlihan has died, at rest in Fiddler’s Green. Cory sang at his funeral. Me too.AJ has a scholarship and grants, the product of his own work and our having no money. There is something to be said about being hard up. He’s making it on his own. He might have to get student loans for next year.

...Last June…
Caitlin is back home, almost her tough self again, but unable to work.  Sean, Michael and Seamus have jobs and bring in some money. I provide the rest. In some mysterious way, caring for her has strengthened me.

Marnie graduates tonight. She is so beautiful! She just got the news she has a scholarship to UW-Madison. The scars on her arms have faded. She hasn’t cut in a long time.
Marthe is my children’s grandmother now that MomKat is disappearing into Alzheimer’s. MomKat forgot my name the other day. Aunt Carrie said she took Mom to the doctor three weeks ago and he suspects dementia but if it is, it’s very early. Still, I know. Is it easier to lose someone all at once or little by little? I am to find out.


Aided by research, I encase myself in the Prison of Numb. Meetings with Jonny O and Conrad, meetings at school with teachers, and meetings with our counselors break the routine I set for us at home.

Every meeting with Jonny O makes my own emotional life worse. Conrad is negotiating a monthly sum to be paid to me against my eventual settlement from The Firm. Jon is fighting it tooth and nail, insisting Art didn’t bring in much money for them. He’s crazy angry.

I’m learning a lot about post-traumatic stress the hard way. My own nightmares are all too real. But for me, the “daymares” are the worst. I’ll be going about my ordinary day, thinking I’m better, or at least not worse, and a sudden flash of the scenes I’ve had to view is there before me, real as real can be. I’m so grateful for our dogs, Curly and Moe. Sometimes the only way I can tell what’s real or not is that the dogs aren’t in the death scenes. They’ve become my touchstones. Their wagging tails,  heir drooling on the couch, hold me in the reality of the present. I remind myself that the burned corpse I see in the living room is the past. I think the dogs are psychic. They know when I need them. When the hallucinations appear, they’re right here without even being called.

Yesterday, on the strong recommendation from Grace, I told Conrad I can’t meet with Jonny for a while.​

“I saw Art’s body during this last meeting. I saw it lying on the table. I almost threw up. I tried to fake it but I can’t have that happen in our meetings. I have to stay in control here. Jonny is fighting every way he can.”

“If that’s what is happening,” Grace affirmed. “you need to stop going to the meetings for a while and let Conrad take over. You have to let go. This is not cowardly or selfish. It’s self-caring and self-healing. You will be stronger if you take better care of yourself. Be gentle with yourself. By being there, you’re feeding into Jonny’s ego. If you need backup with Conrad, sign a release of information so I can talk to him and I’ll make a very firm recommendation to him.”Conrad agreed. Relief!

From: Betrayal by Serpent