Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Greg Quigley's Cautionary Tale

I worked alongside a man named Greg Quigley for several years in the 1990s. We became friends. He was in his early forties when we first met. I was ten years younger. Greg was attempting to right his life ship, which had been blown off course by a series of unfortunate events.

The man made decent money, dated his fair share of women, and appeared to have a bright future in the immediate years after graduating from college. He even asked the love of his life to marry him. She didn’t think he was ready for such a commitment and said no. She probably was right.

As his mother lay dying in a hospital, Greg wouldn’t leave her bedside and faithfully kept all-night vigils for days that turned into weeks. He told me that he didn’t want her to wake up in the middle of the night with no one around to comfort her. His married older brother, Michael, and married younger sister, Meg, were too busy with their own families for such dedication. When Mrs. Quigley passed away, Greg moved back into his boyhood home in the Little Neck neighborhood in Queens to care for his widowed father, who had a bad heart condition. It was the beginning of his descent.

The move was expected to be a temporary thing, but his ailing father clung to life for more than ten years, even after suffering a crippling stroke. Greg was regularly spotted in the area pushing his dad around in a wheelchair—a man with whom he had never gotten along. His brother, who lived nearby, rarely pitched in. His siblings viewed Greg as a nonentity; a middle-aged bachelor who didn’t have a life worth fretting over.

Greg was deeply depressed by the time his father passed away. The family home had been willed to him, so at least he would have some money coming to him when it was sold, and a roof over his head in the interim. However, his brother asked that Greg sign the property over to him. His family could move right into the old Quigley family house. What would a single guy do with such a big house anyway? And why sell it to a stranger when it could be kept in the family? Compliant, Greg gave the house to his sibling and got nothing in return. Despite being downcast and downtrodden, he rented an apartment and attempted to move on with his life.

When I got to know him, Greg was of much sounder mind. He had emerged from the doldrums and fully realized that his big brother had taken advantage of him at a very vulnerable point in his life. But that was ancient history, he said. He had made peace with that life episode. Greg worked by day and attended law school by night. On the surface, he was a living and breathing example of the possibilities of redemption. Seemingly, he was picking up the pieces and beginning again.

Greg once said to me: “I know that I have to get past all of that stuff. I’m forty years old now. I’m responsible for my actions. But just realizing it and saying it doesn’t make me a different person. I am who I am because of my parents and how I was raised.”

Greg passed the New York State bar exam on his second try. His future looked far more promising than his recent past. But, paradoxically, he made almost no effort to find a job in the law profession. A former professor of his—and regular customer at the retail shop where Greg labored to pay his bills—offered to help him get a foot in the door. Fast forward a couple of years and Greg was working a new job all right, but not with a law firm or even in the field. He was driving a cab for Ollie’s car service in Queens.

The very last time I spoke with him—which I didn’t know would be the last time—we talked about living alone and the prospect of dropping dead in our respective apartments. This was par for our conversation course. We laughed at the thought of our decomposing bodies reeking to high heaven and alerting the neighbors that something was rotten in the State of New York. It was mostly tongue-in-cheek banter, but Greg was absolutely serious when he painted a picture of—what was for him—his worst nightmare. He didn’t want to be found dead stark naked. When his time came, he hoped to be suitably attired and peacefully reclining in his bed or easy chair. He had this thing about dying with dignity. Even the notion of being found in his underwear disturbed him.

I can only surmise that Greg wanted a dignity in death that he didn’t have in life. He also worried that his vast collection of pornography would be discovered upon his death. He loathed the thought of his little sister, pushing forty and with kids of her own, cleaning out his apartment and unearthing the less than wholesome side of her big brother’s inner life. He wanted his niece and nephew to fondly remember their Uncle Greg as the man who took them to Mets’ games at Shea Stadium and to movies in Manhattan.

My final conversation with Greg occurred in June of 1998. He left me a “just called to say hello” message while I was away in early September. I didn’t return the call. I learned in late November that he had died. He had, in fact, been found dead in his apartment, and probably had been dead for a while before his body was discovered. By the time anybody outside of his immediate family got word of his passing, Greg was already in the ground. The full story of how he died, or what exactly was the cause of death, remains unknown.

Greg’s untimely end was a bona fide tragedy because he had exhibited undaunted courage and admirable determination in accomplishing what he did at his age and in his straits. He approached the finish line. But for reasons known only to him, he didn’t cross it. And now he’s dead, and I don’t how it happened or why it happened. I hope for his sake that he was appropriately dressed and composed when his body was found. At the very least, Greg deserved that.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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