By Salvatore Tocci
I didn’t know him for very long. In fact, we really didn’t spend that much time together. I was living with my family inBrooklynwhile he was living with his inEast Hampton. At the time, I was going to college and working summers at a hospital with plans to become a doctor. He was busy working and helping his wife raise four children. Actually, he was raising a lot more children when you consider that he was a principal. His name was John Marshall, and the elementary school inEast Hamptonbears his name.
Whenever I had the chance, I would drive out toEast Hamptonto spend some time, mostly summer weekends, at his home. They lived onMontauk Highway. Living inBrooklynhad its advantages, including not being bothered by highway traffic. In any case, we probably made more noise at dinner than the cars rushing by. But it wasn’t noise. It was laughter. Jack, as everyone called him, had a great sense of humor. I can’t remember him not smiling. That was also something he wanted everyone else to do.
Smiles were everywhere whenever the seven of us sat down to eat. While sitting around the dinner table, Jack would have everyone play a mind game. For example, someone would have to pick a word, and then the person sitting next to them would have to pick another word starting with the last letter of the word that had been chosen. Simple game, but it did make us laugh.
Those visits were the first I made toEast Hamptonbefore moving here. At that time, the thought of living here never crossed my mind. But that’s another story. This one is about Jack. Wanting to make sure that a city boy knew what it was like to live here, Jack took me clamming. Back then we didn’t have to travel too far or work too hard to get them. Eating them though did take some effort on my part. But Jack made sure that I learned to enjoy them. He got me to enjoy a lot more than clams. I realized then that the greatest enjoyment in life was spending time with your family. It was obvious by looking at Jack.
I learned to enjoy every weekend I spent here that first summer. Given what we have around us inEast Hampton, that is hardly surprising. However, Jack made it even more enjoyable.
The second summer that I would spend here would be very different. Jack had developed colon cancer. At first, only his wife knew. She never told Jack what she had learned from the doctor. I think she didn’t want to see that smile disappear. It didn’t. Believing that he developed a back problem from playing too much tennis, Jack spent that summer on a lounge chair. His wife made him relax in the sun, thinking that a tan would help mask what she knew was coming. Jack and I didn’t do anything that summer except talk. I tried to help around the house by doing chores that normally he would take care of – painting the front porch railing, cutting back the bamboo that always crept into the driveway, and doing whatever it took to keep my mind from focusing on what was going to happen to the happiest person I have ever known.
That second summer quickly turned ugly. Jack did very poorly. In September of that year he was taken toSouthamptonHospital. The first time I saw Jack in the hospital, he had already lapsed into a coma. The doctor said that the only thing keeping him alive was his strong heart. I wanted to add that he might still be smiling inside. His wife Millie did not want their children to see what had become of their father. The oldest was going to be a junior in college, while the youngest hadn’t even started school. They were both girls. The other two children were boys, one in high school and the other in the elementary school that would one day bear his father’s name.
While Jack was in the hospital, Millie had asked me to tell their older daughter about Jack. I remember being on the beach that summer day—it was at Albert’s Landing—when I told her. It was a perfect day, as far as the weather was concerned. We were alone. Perhaps I thought that she had some idea of what was happening and that she would not be surprised to learn how her father was really doing. But I was wrong. The news was totally devastating. When we got home, she ran to her mother and cried. For a long time, it would be impossible to remember the smiles that were once impossible to overlook in that house.