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The Man He Might Have Been
Konner Canarsey was the first boy from the projects to ever be accepted to Trenton and actually afford to go.
His mother Kathleen Canarsey, a pretty Irish immigrant old before her time, was seamstress and piano teacher. Two jobs that might have gotten her more than enough to get by, had she not been living with 3 kids in the poorest part of North Bergen, New Jersey. The fact of the matter was that not many people in the neighborhood had the money to be tailoring their clothes often and even fewer had ever even seen a real piano, much less own one, and didn’t have the time or money to learn to play anyhow.
His father, Kane Canarsey, was a World War II veteran. Thrown into the front lines to watch his friends die, being shot and not knowing whether or not he would live to see the next day, held in a German Prison Camp with a wound not properly healed all before his seventeenth birthday had taken a toll not only on his health but also on his mind. He became a bitter and delusional alcoholic, rarely sober enough to be much of a father figure or hold a well-paying job.
The oldest children, Konner (a senior in high school) and Kevin (a freshman) both worked as paperboys, scrounging for pitiful tips. Katherine, the youngest, was only twelve and therefore couldn’t do very much to improve the family’s financial situation.
Needless to say, the family had trouble making ends meet. But Konner worked hard in school, kept his grades high enough to be on the honor roll every semester, refusing to succumb to a life of poverty and low expectations. He was, as luck would have it, a gifted wrestler and football player. He had this determination, this incredible drive to win and be better each match or game. It was this passionate drive that put him just a step above the other players, and got him noticed by many college recruiters. In his senior year, he did not have to pay the application fees because of his financial situation. He applied to twenty-four colleges, and out of the twenty-four he was accepted to twenty-three (Dartmouth being the one and only rejection). Konner decided on Trenton, where he was given a full-ride for his athletic abilities, his grades, and because his family was so poor.
His mother was overjoyed, his siblings in awe, his neighbors even swelled with pride as if they too had been accepted to one of the top colleges in the state.
“Finally,” an elderly neighbor of his said in passing on the street just a few weeks before Konner left, “somebody around here isn’t gonna be such a screw-up. Canarsey, boy, you are GOING places.”
Konner himself couldn’t help but take quite a bit of pride himself; he’d defied the odds, gotten into a great college, he really was GOING places. His dream was to be a high school and eventually university athletic director, so that he would continue to be involved in the sports he loved and help kids who might come from similar situations to his own. And here he was; he had made it. Konner Canarsey of the North Bergen projects had taken fate into his own hands and succeeded.
By his junior year at college, he was already the big-man on scene the same way he’d been in high school and a major addition to both the school’s football and wrestling teams. He hadn’t been home since he started at Trenton, the summer months were spent either on-campus training for the football season or partying with friends. It was October when his mother called, and he knew something was terribly wrong the moment she said hello.
“Mom, what is it? What’s wrong?” Konner asked, clutching the grimy pay phone tightly so that his knuckles turned white.
“Oh Konner, it’s your Da. He’s been sick….I didn’t want to worry you; what with you working so hard at school and all….but he’s not doing well. They say he’ll….oh, Jesus….they say he’ll be going to the Lord soon now. Konner…I’m so sorry to ask you this but…you have to come home….” His mother barely got out, her accent thickened by her sobs. Konner barely got out a promise to be at the hospital the next day before hanging up. In a haze of disbelief, he packed a few essentials and went down to the Principal’s office to ask permission to leave for an extended period of time. The principal was cold and uncaring of his situation, offering no condolences only reminding him that he couldn’t be gone long because he was on scholarship. Konner sped down the highways, driving all night to the old decrepit hospital just outside the projects of North Bergen.
The source of Kane Canarsey’s illness was a combination of liver cancer, due to his alcoholism, and a blood infection from the poorly-treated wound he’d received in World War II. He had been sick for two years without Konner ever knowing and now he was at the end. His breathing was wheezy and shallow, his skin grey and paper thin from the chemotherapy, and he was constantly slipping in and out of reality. Sometimes he screamed and ranted as if he were back on the battle fields, sometimes he recited his wedding vows, and sometimes he just laid there as if his soul had already gone.
They were all there when he passed. His final words to his family were “I’m sorry.” And, though he’d never been much of a father and since he’d turned to alcohol hadn’t been much of a husband, they forgave him and let him go with their hearts breaking.
The funeral was held two days after. The only attendants were Konner, his sister and his mother as Kane Canarsey’s only friends had either died in battle or were un-contactable. The middle child Kevin Canarsey, Konner learned, had began abusing drugs terribly the summer going into Kevin’s sophomore year of high school. Kathleen forbade him to do such things in her home and so Kevin had left and taken any and all money that his mother and sister had saved up to buy more drugs to feed his addiction. Kathleen’s eye sight was going, and the doctor said that soon enough she’d be completely blind. She could no longer sew or teach piano enough just to squeeze by.
After the funeral, Konner went back to Trenton only for his remaining bags. His coaches were sad to see him go, a young man with so much potential, but none offered any real assistance. He returned back to the little apartment in the projects, a place he hadn’t seen in two years. A place he’d hoped not to see until he had a college diploma gripped tightly in his hand with pride seeping out of him. Two of his neighbors watched as he got his bags out of the trunk and went up to the apartment door. One shook his head in disappointment, as the other with great dismay breathed out; “I really thought he was gonna make it.”
Konnor got a job working in construction in New York City. It didn’t pay very well, the work was hard, and the hours were long but it allowed him to earn enough to get his family somewhat back on their feet. Each day he got up at 2 a.m. and was forced to walk down to the nearest bus stop to get into the city since he’d sold his truck. He’d walk to the current theatre or office or store he was working on, if he could afford it some days he would buy himself a $5 lunch. Most days though, he didn’t have more than a couple of quarters in his pocket. He’d work harder than any other man, sometimes even staying longer than necessary just to make some extra money. Most nights, he wouldn’t get home until about eight o’clock, giving him only an hour to eat, spend time with his mother and sister, and shower before going to bed and starting all over again the next day. It was a miserable existence, but it did get the family by.
Konner continued to work every day throughout the years, Katherine graduated high school four years later and ended up running off with a boyfriend to California. She had a dream to become a Hollywood star and knew she’d be trapped like her brother if she stayed in North Bergen any longer than necessary. It broke Kathleen’s heart the day her little girl left, leaving her depressed and growing older each day without much of a will to live. She ended up very sick that winter, and Konner worked even harder in order to pay her hospital bills at the price of leaving his mother alone in her little white room for days at a time.
“Konner, my boy, you are all a mother could have ever hoped for. You have been such a blessing.” Kathleen said with tears glistening in her un-seeing eyes and her voice thin and strained as if it took every ounce of energy in her just to speak.
Kathleen Canarsey passed on December 14th, 1985. Konner was her only family left to attend her funeral, since Kevin was unreachable and Katherine refused to go anywhere near the East Coast. Konner continued to live in the apartment, having no other family to live with and not enough money to buy another place.
Life went on; Konner still got up each morning for work, sometimes having enough for lunch and sometimes not, got home later at night, ate alone, went to bed and got up to do the same each day. He met a pretty young woman named Ana De-Mark who worked as a secretary in the Garment Center. Both found that they grew up in struggling home situations and both had lost contact with their family for one reason or another. They both just wanted a small, normal family life.
Ana and Konner were married May 15th, 1995. Neither of them had any family to attend, but they had plenty of friends from work and high school and some of Konner’s friends from his brief stint at college also attended. It was a simple wedding, but a lovely one.
A year later, they gave birth to a beautiful baby girl they named Kassidy Canarsey, keeping with the tradition of “K” names in Konner’s own family. For the first year, they continued to live in the apartment in the projects before getting enough money to move to Ho-Ho-Kus, a small town in New Jersey. Both parents continued working until Kassidy was seven, when a terrible car crash ended up crippling Ana from the waist-down, forcing her to quit her job and be a stay-at-home mom. The loss of the two-parent income was a blow to the family’s finances and Konner was forced to take on more hours yet again. Some nights, he slept in his trailer on the worksite in order to make more money in overtime hours.
As Kassidy got older, she saw less and less of her father. Many of her friends assumed that she didn’t even have a father because he was never around for them to meet. She never made Konner feel badly for it, but she was always disappointed when he missed her plays and concerts at school or her dance recitals. Kassidy understood he had to work, but she needed her dad there for her.
As the years went by, the constant work and lack of food and sleep started to take its’ toll on Konner’s body. His back often pained him, and he took to limping around the house. Ana begged him to take time off in order to take care of himself, but he knew he couldn’t. Without his income, they wouldn’t be able to pay the bills or to send Kassidy to college so that she may have a chance at making a better life for herself and not being stuck the way Konner was.
But a body can only take so much. Konner’s health deteriorated, his immune system basically destroyed after years of constant working. In the winter of 2013, Konner began having strange symptoms. He had immense trouble swallowing, his voice was constantly hoarse, and he had an abnormal neck swelling. At Ana’s insistent request, Konner reluctantly went to the doctor by January of 2014. It was then that, after running a few tests, Konner found out he had stage four IVB anaplastic thyroid cancer. And because he was 53, male, and without a strong immune system his outlook was not good. He decided to not go through with chemotherapy, although his daughter and wife furiously begged and cried for him to at least try. But he’d seen how the chemo had killed his father even before his death, and he refused to allow that painful, lifeless existence to happen to him.
He spent months in the hospital, the cancer destroying his body and killing him slowly. Konner could no longer breathe without a tube in his throat, and the cancer had spread to his lungs and bones, making it painful to move and almost impossible to breathe. It felt as though he were constantly drowning, his lungs frantically gasping and fighting for air. The doctors and nurses did their best to keep him from being in too much pain, and the medication they gave him had him slipping in and out of consciousness.
Ana and Kassidy both came by almost every day to talk with him. He understood almost everything they told him; Kassidy had been accepted on scholarship to Notre Dame for the next fall and she hoped it made him proud (it did, it brought tears of pride and joy to his eyes), Ana had gotten in touch with his brother and sister. Apparently, Kevin now owned a very successful bar and night club in New Orleans. He had gotten married and had two children a little younger than Kassidy, although Ana said she could tell in the way he talked that he was still abusing drugs. And Katherine had also married and had just landed a major part in a new television series. Both were sorry to hear he was sick, but they couldn’t just drop everything in their life to help him despite the fact that that’s exactly what Konner had done for them. They promised to try to come as soon as they could. But deep down, Konner knew he’d never see either of his siblings again.
Lying in his room alone one night in February, unable to sleep and struggling for air, Konner thought back on his life and what it had meant. He had almost made it, almost been the first college graduate any of his neighbors in the projects had ever known. He could have gone on to great things, really inspired other people. Given his beautiful wife and daughter everything they deserved in life and more. Spent more time with them, gone to every dance recital and play and game, taken them to see the world. Lived comfortably, retired with plenty of money. But fate had had other plans for him.
It isn’t fair, he thought trying to keep his mind on anything but the indescribable pain filling his chest, I gave up everything, EVERYTHING, for them and for mom and then for my own family. I worked every day of my life in a job I hated because I couldn’t do anything else because I had to leave college to support my sister and mother. I could have GONE places, but I sacrificed everything. They left as soon as they could, never looking back, and they get everything in life. And after everything I’ve done; what did I get? Cancer.
Konner allowed this one moment of self-pity and jealousy to invade him before letting it go completely. He had no energy left to be angry, he barely had the energy to keep breathing. Still, as he thought about whom he had been, who he was, and who he would die as, and couldn’t help but feel this crushing defeat. They had told him he would be someone great, that the sky was the limit, he could do anything and nothing could stand in his way. But fate had. Fate had gone and taken away that bright future. Fate had murdered the man he might have been.
And, with that thought, he took a wheezy and strained breath in as his lungs finally gave out and Konner Canarsey’s eyes closed for the last time.