Jim Daley and Joe McCarthy had something in common. They died at 80 going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Walt O'Brien, their protege, found this out when he called the homes of both men on New Year's Day, an annual custom for Walt, something he started doing years ago just to find out how his old mentors were doing.
Jim's widow spoke to Walt on the phone and told him Jim had died from a stroke on Halloween. They had found his body in the morning, half in the bathroom and half in the hallway, cold as a mackerel fresh out of the sea. Jim's widow said she was a sound sleeper. Walt thought she should have heard his body fall since Jim was a big man, all belly and buttocks, as Jim himself would put it.
Joe's widow said her Joe had tripped on the bathroom rug on All Soul's Day, banged his head on the commode and died in intensive care a week later, never emerging from his coma. She was happy the priest got there in time to administer the last rites before Joe stopped breathing. His last breath, she said, was a gurgle.
Jim and Joe had been more like uncles to Walt than mentors. They came into his life when Walt was in grammar school. It was just after his dad had been killed in Korea and Walt needed all the support he could get.
Over the next 50 years Walt had stayed in touch with both men, calling them on New Year's Day from different cities. Their advice over the years helped Walt survive three job losses, a foreclosure, two car wrecks and four divorces. Sometimes their advice dealt with the big issues of life. But sometimes they commented on smaller phenomena as well.
Last year, for example, Jim had warned Walt that growing old meant not being able to put your underwear on standing up.
"I have to sit on the bed now," Jim had said, sounding almost depressed for a man known for his jocularity.
Right after Jim told him about the underwear problem, Walt called Joe and asked if Jim was right. Joe too confirmed he now had to sit on the bed to get his underwear on. He told Walt every man has to sit down at some point in life, provided he lives long enough.
"Age has its requirements," Joe said. "There's a happy medium, I suppose. If I had died a few years ago, I wouldn't be having this problem right now."
At 60, Walt could still put his underwear on standing up but it was getting more difficult. He had to hop on one leg, pogo-stick style, to get the job done. But sitting down was not an option. Walt was a proud man who had overcome bigger problems in life and he'd keep hopping for as long as he could.
One time, however, he almost fell but landed in a chair. His fourth wife Belinda still laughs about it even though they're no longer married. She even called two of his ex-wives and told them about it. They couldn't stop laughing.
Walt knows that one day he will have to sit down to put his underwear on unless he dies before that. He figures he has at least a few good years left. But after hearing that Jim and Joe had died trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, Walt decided to take certain steps to avoid a similar mishap in his own life.
First, he installed night lights along the baseboards going from the bedroom to the bathroom. At midnight the hallway now shines like a small expressway with no traffic at all.
Then Walt made some New Year's resolutions, a step he had never taken before. As a result he now eats salads and fruit plates instead of double cheeseburgers and lots of ice cream. What's more he reads the Bible now and then in the morning. He's even quit drinking beer late into the night.
The new Walt now sits back in his leather recliner, sips wine coolers out of old jelly jars and listens, over and over, to his favorite recording of an old Irish reel called "Toss the Feathers." It’s played beautifully, he says, by the McNulty Family, most of whose members, he figures, are by now dead.
When he was a boy, Jim and Joe had introduced Walt to traditional Irish music and even taught him a few steps of the reel, jig and hornpipe.
Once in awhile, when he's had enough wine, Walt tries to do a few of those steps and he succeeds to his own satisfaction.
And, of course, he still puts his underwear on standing up, one hop at a time.