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Inside the O'Briens

Part 1

Huntington's disease (HD) is an inherited neurodegenerative disease characterized by a progressive loss of voluntary motor control and an increase in involuntary movements. Initial physical symptom may include a loss of balance, reduced dexterity, falling, chorea, slurred speech, and difficulty swallowing. The disease is diagnosed through neurological exam, based on these disturbances in movement, and can be confirmed through genetic testing, as a single genetic mutation causes this disease.

Although the presentation of physical symptoms is necessary for diagnosis, there exists an insidious "prodrome of HD" that may begin up to fifteen years before the motor problems appear. Prodromal symptoms of HD are both psychiatric and cognitive and may include depression, apathy, paranoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulsivity, outbursts of anger, reduced speed and flexibility of cognitive processing, and memory impairment.

HD is typically diagnosed between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five, proceeding inexorably to death in ten to twenty years. There is no treatment that affects the progression and no cure.

It has been called the cruelest disease known to man.


Chapter 1

Damn woman is always moving his things. He can't kick off his boots in the living room or set his sunglasses down on the coffee table without her relocating them to "where they belong." Who made her God in this house? If he wants to leave a stinking pile of his own shit right in the middle of the kitchen table, then that's where it should stay until he moves it.

Where the fuck is my gun?

"Rosie!" Joe hollers from the bedroom.

He looks at the time: 7:05am. He's going to be late for roll call if he doesn't get the hell out of her pronto, but he can't go anywhere without his gun.

Think. It's so hard to think lately when he's in a hurry. Plus it's a thousand degrees hotter than hell in here. It's been sweltering for June, in the high eighties all week, and barely cools down at night. Terrible sleeping weather. The air in the house is a thick swamp, today's heat and humidity already elbowing in on what was trapped inside yesterday. The windows are open, but that doesn't help a lick. His white Hanes T-shirt is sticking to his back beneath his vest, pissing him off. He just showered and could already use another.

Think. He took a shower and got dressed --- pants, T-shirt, Kevlar vest, socks, boots, gun belt. Then he took his gun out of the safe, release the trigger lock, and then what? He looks down at this right hip. It's note there. He can feel the missing weight of it without even looking. He's got his magazine pouch, handcuffs, Mace, radio, and service baton, but no gun.

It's not in the safe, not on his dresser, not in the top drawer of his dresser, not on the unmade bed. He looks over at Rosie's bureau. Nothing but the Virgin Mary centered on an ivory doily. She sure ain't going to help him.

St. Anthony, where the fuck is it?

He's tired. He worked traffic detail last night over at the Garden. Friggin' Justin Timberlake concert got out late. So he's tired. So what? He's been tried for years. He can't imagine being so tired that he would be careless enough to misplace his loaded gun. A lot of guys with as many years on the force as Joe grow complacent about their service weapon, but he never has.

He stomps down the hall, passes the two other bedrooms, and pokes his head into their only bathroom. Nothing. He storms into the kitchen with his hands on his hips, the heel of his right hand searching for the top of his gun out of habit.

His four not-yet-showered, bed-headed, sleepy teenagers are up and seated around the tiny kitchen table for breakfast --- plates of undercooked bacon, runny scrambled eggs, and burnt white toast. The usual. Joe scans the room and spots his gun, his loaded gun, on the mustard-yellow Formica counter next to the sink.

"Mornin', Dad," offers Katie, his youngest, smiling but shy about it, sensing that something is off.

He ignores Katie. He picks up his Glock, secures it in its holster, and then aims the crosshairs of his wrath at Rosie.

"Whaddaya doin' with my gun there?"

"What are you talking about?" says Rosie, who is standing by the stove in a pink tank top and no bra, shorts, and bare feet.

"You're always movin' my shit around," says Joe.

"I never touch your gun," says Rosie, standing up to him.

Rosie is petite at five feet nothing and a hundred pounds soaking wet. Joe's no giant either. He's five feet nine with his patrol boots on, but everyone thinks of him as being taller than he is, probably because he's barrel-chested and has muscular arms and a deep, husky voice. At thirty-six, he's got a bit of a gut, but not bad for his age or considering how much of his life he spends siting in a cruiser. He's normally playful and easygoing, a pussycat really, but even when he's smiling and there's that twinkle in his blue eyes, everyone knows he's old-school tough. No one messes with Joe. No one but Rosie.

She's right. She never touches his gun. Even after all these years of his being on the force, she's never grown comfortable with having a firearm in the house, even though it's always in the safe or in his top dresser drawer, where it's trigger-locked, or on his right hip. Until today.

"Then how the fuck did it get there?" he asks, pointing to the space next to the sink.

"Watch your mouth," she says.

He looks over at his four kids, who have all stopped eating to witness the show. He narrows in on Patrick. God love him, but he's sixteen going on stupid. This would be just the kind of knucklehead move he would pull, even after all the lectures these kids have endured about the gun.

"So which one of you did this?"

They all stare and say nothing. The Charlestown code of silence, eh?

"Who picked up my gun and left it by the sink? he demands, his voice booming. Silence will not be an option.

"Wasn't me, Dad," says Meghan.

"Me either," says Katie.

"Not me," says JJ.

"I didn't do it," says Patrick.

What every criminal he's ever arrested says. Everyone's a fuckin' saint. They all look up at him, blinking and waiting. Patrick shoves a rubbery slice of bacon into his mouth and chews.

"Have some breakfast before you go, Joe," says Rosie.

He's too late to have breakfast. He's too late because he's been looking for his goddamn gun that someone took and then left on the kitchen counter. He's late and feeling out of control, and he's hot, too hot. The air in this cramped room is too soupy to breathe, and it feels as if the heat from the stove and six bodies and the weather is stoking something already threatening to boil over inside him.

He's going to be late for roll call, and Sergeant Rick McDonough, five years younger than Joe, is going to have a word with him again or maybe even write him up. He can't stomach the humiliating thought of it, and something inside him explodes.

He grabs the cast-iron skillet on the stove by the handle and sidearms it across the room. It smashes a sizable hole in the drywall not far from Katie's head, then lands with a resounding BANG on the linoleum floor. Rusty brown bacon grease drips down the daisy-patterned wallpaper like blood oozing from a wound.

The kids are wide-eyed and silent. Rosie says nothing and doesn't move. Joe storms out of the kitchen, down the narrow hallway, and steps into the bathroom. His heart is racing, and his head is hot, too hot. He splashes cold water over his hair and face and wipes himself dry with a hand towel.

He needs to leave now, right now, but something in his reflection snags him and won't let go.

His eyes.

His pupils are dilated, black and wide with adrenaline, like shark eyes, but that's not it. It's the expression in his eyes that has him arrested. Wild, unfocused, full of rage. His mother.

It's the same unbalanced gaze that used to terrify him as a young boy. He's looking in the mirror, late for roll call, glued to the wretched eyes of his mother, who used to stare at him just like this when she could do nothing else but lie in her bed in the psych ward at the state hospital, mute, emaciated, and possessed, waiting to die.

The devil in his mother's eyes, dead for twenty-five years, is now staring at him in the bathroom mirror.



Chapter 2

It's a cool Sunday morning, and Joe is walking the dog while Rosie is at church. He used to go with her and the kids whenever he had off, but after Katie received her confirmation, that was the end of it. Now only Rosie goes, and she's disgusted with the whole pathetic, sinful lot of them. A big fan of tradition, an unfortunate quality for someone who only gets a full weekend off every seven and a half weeks and hasn't seen Christmas morning with his family in six years, Joe will still attend Mass on Christmas Eve and Easter when he can, but he's done with the weekly sacrament.

It's not that he doesn't believe in God. Heaven and hell. Good and evil. Right and wrong. Shame still guides many of his daily decisions. God can see you. God can hear what you're thinking. God loves you, but if you fuck up, you're gonna burn in hell. The nuns spent his entire youth hammering those paranoid beliefs through his thick skull, right between the eyes. It's all still rattling around in there with no way out.

But God must know that Joe's a good man. And if He doesn't, then one hour one a week spent kneeling, sitting, and standing in St. Francis Church ain't going to save Joe's immortal soul now.

While he'll still put his money on God, it's the Catholic Church as an institution that he'st lost faith in. Too many priests diddling too many little boys; too many bishops and cardinals and even the Pope covering up the whole disgraceful mess. And Joe's no feminist, but they don't do right by women, if you ask him. No birth control, for one thing. Come on, is this really a mandate from Jesus? If Rosie wasn't on the pill, they'd probably have a dozen kids by now, and she'd have at least one foot in the grave. God bless modern medicine.

That's why they have a dog. After Katie, he told Rosie no more. Four is enough. Rosie got pregnant with JJ the summer after they graduated from high school (they were lucky pulling out worked as long as it did), so they had a shotgun wedding and a baby before they turned nineteen. JJ and Patrick were Irish twins, born eleven months apart. Meghan arrived fifteen months after Patrick, and Katie came screaming into this world eighteen months after Meghan.

As the kid got older and went to school, life got easier, but those early years were ugly. He remembers giving Rosie many unreciprocated kisses goodbye, leaving her home alone with four kids under the age of five, three of them still in diapers, grateful to have a legitimate reason to get the hell out of there, but he worried every day that she might not make it to the end of his shift. He actually imagined her doing something dreadful, his experience on the job or stories of what his fellow officers had seen fueling his worst fears. Regular people end up doing some crazy shit when pushed to their limits. Rosie probably didn't get a full night's sleep for a decade, and their kids were a handful. It's a miracle they're all still alive.

Rosie wasn't on board at first with the Infield Plan, as Joe called it. Insanely, she wanted more babies. She wanted to add at least a pitcher and a catcher to the O'Brien roster. She's the youngest of seven kids, the only girl, and even though she hardly ever sees her brothers now, she likes being from a big family.

But Joe made his decision, and that was that. He wasn't budging, and for the first time in his life, he actually refused to have sex until she agreed with him. That was a tense three months. He had been prepared to take care of business in the shower indefinitely when he noticed a flat, circular container on his pillow. Inside, he found a right of pills, a week's worth already punched out. Against God's will, Rosie ended their cold war. He couldn't take her clothes off fast enough.

But if she couldn't have any more babies, she wanted a dog. Fair enough. She came home from the animal shelter with a shih tzu. He still thinks she did that just to spite him, her way of getting in the last word. Joe's a Boston cop, for cripes sake. He should be the proud owner of a Labrador or a Bernese mountain dog or an Akita. He agreed to getting a dog, a real dog, not a prissy little rat. He was not pleased.

Rosie named him Yaz, which at least made the mutt tolerable. Joe used to hate walking Yaz alone, out in public together. Made him feel like a pussy. But at some point he got over it. Yaz is a good dog, and Joe is man enough to be seen out in Charlestown walking a shih tzu. As long as Rosie doesn't dress the pooch in one of those friggin' sweaters.

He likes walking through Town when he's off duty. Even though everyone here knows he's a cop, and he's carrying his gun concealed beneath his untucked shirt, he feels unburdened when he's not wearing his tough police persona along with the uniform and badge that make him a visible target. He's always a cop, but off duty, he's also just a regular guy walking his dog in his neighborhood. And that feels good.

Everyone here calls the place Town, but Charlestown isn't really a town, or a city for that matter. It's a neighborhood of Boston, and a small one at that, only one square mile of land tucked between the Charles and Mystic Rivers. But, as any Irishman will tell you about his manhood, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in personality.

The Charlestown Joe grew up in was unofficially divided into two neighborhoods. The Bottom of the Hill was where the poor Irish lived, and the Top of the Hill, up by St. Francis Church, was home to the Lace Curtain Irish. People at the Top of the Hill could be just as poor as the bastards at the Bottom, and in most cases they probably were, but the perception was that they were better off. People here still think that.

There were also a few black families in the projects and some Italians who spilled over from the North end, but otherwise Charlestown was a homogenous hill of working-class Micks and their families living in tight rows of colonial and triple-decker houses. The Townies. And every Townie knew everyone in Town. If Joe was ever doing anything out of line as a kid, which was often, he'd hear somebody yelling from a stoop or open window, Joseph O'Brien! I see you, and I know your mother! People didn't have to involved the police back then. Kids feared their parents more than they did the authorities. Joe feared his mother more than anyone.

Twenty years ago, Charlestown was all Townies. But the place has changed a lot in recent years. Joe and Yaz plod up the hill, up Cordis Street, and it's as if they've turned the corner and stepped into another zip code. The town houses on this street have all been refurbished. They're either brick or painted in a glossy palette of approved historical colors. The doors are new, the windows have been replaced, neat rows of flowers bloom in copper window boxes, and the sidewalks are dotted with charming gas lamps. He checks out the make of each parked car as he presses on up the steep hill --- Mercedes, BMW, Volvo. It's like Beacon Fuckin' Hill here.

Welcome to the Invasion of the Toonies. He doesn't blame them for coming. Charlestown is perfectly situated --- on the water, a quick hop over the Zakim Bridge to downtown Boston, the Tobin Bridge to the north of the city, the tunnel to the South Shore, a quaint ferry ride to Faneuil Hall. so they started coming, with their fancy corporate jobs and their fat wallets, buying up the real estate and classing up the joint.

But the Toonies don't typically stay. When they first come, most of them are DINKs --- Double Income, No Kids. Then, in a couple of years, they might havea  baby, more one more to balance things out. When the oldest is ready for kindergarten, that's when they leave for the suburbs.

So it's all temporary from the start, and they don't care about where they live as much as people do when they know they're staying until they get put in a box. The Toonies don't volunteer at the Y or coach the Little League teams, and most of them are Presbyterian or Unitarian or vegetarian or whatever friggin' wacky thing they are, and so they don't support the Catholic churches here, which is why St. Catherine's closed. They don't really become part of the community.

But the bigger problem is the Toonies have made Charlestown desirable to outsiders, and they've bloated the housing market. A person has to be rich to live in Charlestown now. Townies are a lot of great things, but unless they've robbed a bank, none of them are rich.

Joe is third-generation Irish in Charlestown. His grandfather, Patrick Xavier O'Brien, came over from Ireland in 1936 and worked in the Navy Yard as a longshoreman, supporting a family of ten on forty dollars a week. Joe's father, Francis, also worked in the Navy Yard, earning a hard but respectable living repairing ships. Joe's not breaking the bank on a cop's salary, but they get by. They've never felt poor here. Most of the next-generation Townies, however, no matter what they do for work, will never be able to afford to live here. It's a real shame.

He passes a FOR SALE sign in front of a freestanding colonial, one of the rare few with a courtyard, and tries to guess the outrageous listing price. Joe's father bought their house, a triple-decker at the Bottom of the Hill, in 1963 for ten grand. A smiliar triple-decker two streets over from Joe and Rosie sold last week for a cool million. Every time he thinks about that, it blows his friggin' mind. Sometimes he and Rosie talk about selling their place, a giddy, fantastical conversation that sounds a lot like imagining what they'd do if they won the lottery.

Joe would get a new car. A black Porsche. Rosie doesn't drive, but she'd get new clothes and shoes and some real jewelry.

But where would they live? They wouldn't move to some monstrous house in the suburbs with lots of land. He'd have to get a lawn mower. Rosie's brothers all live in rural towns at least forty-five minutes outside of Boston and seem to spend every weekend weeding and mulching and doing something labor-intensive to grass. Who wants that? And he'd have to leave the Boston Police Department if they moved to a suburb. That ain't happening. And realistically, he can't drive that kind of car around here. Talk about being a target. So he really wouldn't get the car, and Rosie is fine with her fake diamonds. Who wants to worry about lost or stolen jewelry? So although the conversation starts out heady, it always loops into a big circle that lands them firmly right back where they are. They both love it here, and for all the money in the world wouldn't live anywhere else. Not even Southie.

They're lucky to have inherited the triple-decker. When Joe's father died nine years ago, he left the house to Joe and Joe's only sibling, his sister, Maggie. It took some serious detective work to track Maggie down. Always Joe's opposite, she made it her mission to leave Charlestown immediately after high school and never returned. He found her living in Southern California, divorced, no kids, and wanting nothing to do with the house. Joe understands.

He and Rosie live on the first floor, and twenty-three-year-old Patrick still lives with them. Their other son, JJ, and his wife, Colleen, live on the second floor. Katie and Meghan are roommates on the third floor. Everyone but Patrick pays Joe and Rosie rent, but it's minimal, way below market value, just something to keep them all responsible. And it helps pay off the mortgage. They had to refinance a couple of times to put all four kids through parochial school. That was a huge nut, but there was no way in hell his kids were bused to Dorchester or Roxbury.

Joe turns the corner and decides to cut through Doherty Park. Charlestown is quiet at this sleepy house on a Sunday morning. Clougherty Pool is closed. The basketball courts are empty. The kids are all either in church or still in bed. Other than an occasional passing car, the only sounds are the jingling of Yaz's tags and the change in Joe's front pocket playing together like a song.

As expected, he finds eighty-three-year-old Michael Murphy sitting on the far bench in the shade. He's got his cane and his brown bag of stale bread for the birds. He sits there all day, every day, except for when the weather is particularly lousy, and watches over things. He's seen it all.

"How are ya today, Mayor?" asks Joe.

Everyone calls Murphy Mayor.

"Better than most women deserve," says Murphy.

"so true," chuckles Joe, even though this is Mayor's verbatim reply to this same question about every third time Joe asks.

"Hows' the First Lady?" asks Murphy.

Murphy called Joe Mr. President. The nickname began ages ago as Mr. Kennedy, a reference to Joe and Rose, and then at some point it morphed, skipping from father to son, defying actual US political history, and Mr. Joseph Kennedy became Mr. President. And that, of course, makes Rosie the First Lady.

"Good. She's at church praying for me."

"Gonna be there a long time, then."

"Yup. Have a good one, Mayor."

Joe continues along the path, taking in the distant view from this hill of the industrial silos and the Everett shipyard on the other side of the Mystic River. Most people would say the view is nothing special and might even think it's an eyesore. He'll probably never find a painter parked on this spot with an easel, but Joe sees a kind of urban beauty here.

He's descending the steep hill, using the stairs instead of the switchback ramp,  when he somehow missteps and his view is suddenly nothing but sky. He skids down three concrete steps on his back before he has the presence of mind to stop himself with his hands. He eases himself up to sitting, and he can already feel a nasty series of bruises blossoming on the knobs of his spine. He twists around to examine the stairs, expecting to blame some kind of obstruction such as a stick or a rock or a busted step. There's nothing. He looks up to the top of the stairs, to the park around him and the landing below. At least no one saw him.

Yaz pants and wags his tail, eager to move along.

"Just a sec, Yaz."

Joe lifts each arm up and checks his elbows. Both are scraped and bleeding. He wipes the gravel and blood and eases himself to standing.

How the hell did he trip? Must be his bum knee. He twisted his right knee a couple of years ago chasing a B&E suspect down Warren Street. Brick sidewalks may look pretty, but they're bumpy and buckled, brutal to run on, especially in the dark. His knee hasn't been the same since and seems to just quit on him every now and then without warning. He should probably get it check out, but he doesn't do doctors.

He's particularly careful going down the rest of the stairs and continues down to Medford Street. He decides to cut back in and up at the high school. Rosie should be getting out soon, and he's now feeling a stabbing pinch in his lower back with each step. He wants to get home.

As he's walking up Polk Street, a car slows down next to him. It's Donny Kelly, Joe's best friend from childhood. Donny still lives in Town and works as an EMT, so Joe sees him quite a bit both on and off the job.

"Whaddya drink too much last night?" asks Donny, smiling at him through the open window of his Pontiac.

"Huh?" asks Joe, smiling back.

"You limpin' or something'?"

"Oh yeah, my back is tweaked."

"Wanna ride up over the hill, old man?"

"Nah, I'm good."

"Come on, get in the car."

"I need the exercise," says Joe, patting his gut. "How's Matty doing'?"


"And Laurie?"

"Good, everyone's good. Hey, you sure I can't take you somewhere?"

"No, really, thanks."

"All right, I gotta go. Good to see you, OB."

"You, too, Donny."

Joe makes a point of walking evenly and at a rigorous clip while he can still see Donny's car, but when Donny reaches the top of the hill and then disappears, Joe stops the charade. He trudges along, each step now twisting some invisible screw deeper into his spine, and he wishes he'd taken the ride.

He replays Donny's comment about having too much to drink. He knows it was just an innocent joke, but Joe's always been sensitive about his reputation and drinking. He never has more than two beers. Well, sometimes he'll finish off his two beers with a shot of whiskey, just to prove he's a man, but that's it.

His mother was a drinker. Drank herself into the nuthouse, and everyone knew about it. It's been a long time, but that shit follows you. People don't forget anything, and who you're from is as important as who you are. Everyone half expects you to become a raging alcoholic if your mother drank herself to death.

Ruth O'Brien drank herself to death.

This is what everyone says. It's his family legend and legacy. Whenever it comes up, a parade of memories marches closely behind. It gets uncomfortable real fast, and he swiftly changes the subject so he doesn't have to "go there." How 'bout them Red Sox?

But today, whether due to a growth in bravery, maturity, or curiosity, he can't say, he allows this sentence to accompany him up the hill. Ruth O'Brien drank herself to death. It doesn't really add up. Yes, she drank. In a nutshell, she drank so much that she couldn't walk or talk a straight line. She'd say and do crazy things. Violent things. She was completely out of control, and when his father couldn't handle her anymore, he put her in the state hospital. Joe was only twelve when she died.

Ruth O'Brien drank herself to death. For the first time in his life, he consciously realizes that this sentence that he's held as gospel, a fact as verifiable and real as his own birth date, can't literally be true. His mother was in that hospital for five years. She had to have been as dry as a bone, on the permanent wagon in a hospital bed, when she died.

Maybe her brain and liver had been soaking in booze for too many years, and it turned them both to mush. So maybe it was too late. The damage was done, and there was no recovering. Her wet brain and soggy liver finally failed her. Cause of death: chronic exposure to alcohol.

He reaches the top of the hill, relieved and ready to move on to an easier street and topic, but his mother's death is still pestering him. Something about this new theory doesn't ring true. He's got that unsettled, hole-in-his-gut feeling that he gets when he arrives at a call and he's not getting what really happened from anyone. He's got a good ear for it, the truth, and this ain't it. So if she didn't drink herself to death or  die from alcohol-related causes, then what?

He searches for a better answer for three more blocks and comes up empty. What does it even matter? She's dead. She's been dead a long time. Ruth O'Brien drank herself to death. Leave it alone.

The bells are ringing as he arrives at St. Francis Church. He spots Rosie right away, waiting for him on the top step, and he smiles. He thought she was a knockout when they started dating at sixteen, and he actually thinks she's getting prettier as she ages. At forty-three, she has peaches-and-cream skin splashed with freckles, auburn hair (even though these days the color comes from a bottle), and green eyes that can still make him weak in the knees. She's an amazing mother and definitely a saint for putting up with him. He's a lucky man.

"Did you put in a good word for me?" asks Joe.

"Many times," she says, flicking holy water at him with her fingers.

"Good. You know I need all the help I can get."

"Are you bleeding?" she asks, noticing his arm.

"Yeah, I fell on some stairs. I'm okay."

She takes hold of his other hand, lifts his arm, and finds the bloody abrasion on that elbow.

"You sure?" she asks, concern in her eyes.

"I'm fine," he says, and squeezes her hand in his. "Come, my bride, let's go home."

Inside the O'Briens
by by Lisa Genova

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery Books
  • ISBN-10: 1476717796
  • ISBN-13: 9781476717791