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Standing eight count: Old school

Wife and mother to police officers – both deceased – her walls and shelves are covered by photos of them

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A “standing eight count” is an eight-second “time out” that a referee can afford a boxer who may find themselves in serious trouble. It’s a chance for the ref to assess if there’s any real damage and gives the fighter some time to catch their breath and continue to fight on. In that spirit, this column will feature law enforcement officers or their family members who have overcome serious challenges in their lives, detailing their own standing eight counts, and how they lived to fight on.

“A person on a ventilator doesn’t look like themselves. I didn’t recognize my own son.”

We sit sipping coffee in her sun-drenched room at an assisted living facility an hour north of the city. Wife and mother to police officers – both deceased – her walls and shelves are covered by photos of them and another son who passed on more than a decade ago.

“I’ll be 81 soon,” she says, her eyes scanning the pictures. “Losing a spouse to cancer at 76 is tragic, but it’s very common. And I also had time to steel myself, to get psychologically prepared.”

Her firstborn son died in his 40s of undiagnosed cardiovascular disease.

“I lost one son to an epidemic; the other to a pandemic.”

Her younger son was a sergeant with a small department in an upscale suburban town. A decorated veteran with over 20 years of service, he began to experience symptoms soon after the first waves of COVID crashed ashore.

“My husband had only died about a year earlier, so in many ways, we were still reeling from that grief. We were following the spread of the virus on the news, trying to get information, but there wasn’t much available early on,” she says, brushing snow-white bangs from her eyes. “The cruise ships, what was going on in Italy, the bits and pieces coming out of China. Of course, my son was worried about me because they were reporting how much more dangerous it was for the elderly. One day he got angry because I’d gone food shopping. He had to sit me down and say ‘Ma! I hate to break this to you, but you are one of the elderlies!’”

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An 80s-era clock radio on her nightstand emits a crackle of static, a calling card from an approaching storm. A Sinatra standard slowly fades, quickly replaced by the silken voice of Nat King Cole.

“At first, he just complained of exhaustion. He actually called in sick one day and slept till noon. That’s when I really started to become concerned. He was just like his father; neither of them ever went sick. Then the coughing started.”

She stares out the window. The room darkens abruptly as the sun is enveloped by the gathering clouds.

“I had to force him to go to the ER. He suffered from chronic bronchitis as a result of having pneumonia as a child. But this was different. He couldn’t catch his breath, kept saying he had no power in his lungs. Still, he wouldn’t allow me to call an ambulance; he ended up driving himself to the hospital.”

With his blood oxygen plummeting, the doctors admitted her son immediately. After two weeks on a ventilator, he no longer showed any signs of brain activity.

“He died on April 15 – tax day,” she says, a hollow laugh hanging in the air. “He’d have loved the irony.”

With her remaining family 90 minutes away, the two-time cancer survivor was left to fend for herself as the pandemic raged. After her fifth fall in as many months – the last of which caused her to spend three hellish nights alone on her bedroom floor – she agreed to move into assisted living in order to be closer to a niece.

“This place rarely has vacancies, so I was lucky to get a room,” she says, rapping her knuckles twice on the table.

The facility in which she resides caters to the Jewish community, serving kosher meals and observing sabbath rules.

“My father was Jewish, but he wasn’t very religious. My mother was Roman Catholic, so they decided I was to be raised in that tradition. It’s been very interesting here, learning more about Judaism, its history and rituals. And it has helped me understand my father more. Even myself. Catholics are raised to accept His will, not to question,” she says, looking towards the ceiling. “To be honest, that never sat well with me. I question everything. But the rabbi tells me that I have permission to argue with God since I’m technically half-Jewish.”

She takes a swig of her coffee – black; no cream or sugar, ever.

“My nephew says I’m half-Italian, half-Jewish, half-Bronx,” she says, a twinkle in her eye.

We leave her room and walk down a long hallway to a large common area, crowded with people reading, playing board games and napping. A large flat-screen in the corner plays an episode of ”The Carol Burnette Show” a television classic from the 70s. The sound on the TV is muted, and the closed captioning is set to what I’m assuming is the largest font.

“This show was so funny. And no cursing or nudity! Most of the stuff on TV now is garbage;” she says, her Bronxness coming out in full force. “All the money they have in Hollywood, why can’t they hire people to make more stuff like this?”

Smiling in response, I ask how she has persevered in the face of so much tragedy, and how she keeps moving forward.

“I look around and it’s obvious there are people everywhere worse off than me. I’m grateful for the family I have left, and I’m pretty healthy except for the dammed arthritis in my back and neck which makes walking and using my hands so difficult.”

After a long pause, she continues.

“I really don’t know. I read a little, watch a lot of TV. No surprise, but I can’t get enough of my cop shows,” she says with a chuckle. “I dream about my husband and my sons all the time. I’d give anything to have them back with me. Sometimes I pray for God to take me so I can be with them, but then I feel guilty because every religion teaches it’s wrong to think that way.”

We find two empty seats and watch in silence as Carol Burnett is replaced by Jerry Lewis, whose slapstick antics require no sound.

“I struggle to stay positive,” she says finally. “It can get very lonely, even though I’m surrounded by so many friendly people here.”

I nod, again having no words.

She looks around “Most of them are very nice,” she whispers, placing a hand alongside her mouth conspiratorially. “But they’re all so old!”

Joe Badalamente was a police officer with the NYPD from 1985-2005. His short story Partner won the AKC Gazette’s 24th Annual Fiction competition. His first novel, “The King & Me; A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy” is available on Amazon. It was named a finalist in the 2023 International Book Awards, the only independently published book to be nominated in the category, and won Outstanding Novella in the Independent Author Network 2022 competition.