Degrees of separation

When I was a child there was a tree-house in the back yard of our small and slightly run-down bungalow. It was pretty rickety when we moved in and I had no Dad around to help fix it up. My room was too small for more than a bed and a dresser, barely more than a closet, so the tree-house was my refuge and playroom. It was more or less watertight and it was a haven I shared with only my closest buddies. . My mom rescued a small metal trunk from a neighborhood skip and we scrubbed it out, painted it and I decorated the lid with pictures cut from my comic books. She helped me haul it up into the tree-house and presented me with a dime-store padlock to keep my treasures safe.

I don't want to give you the idea that I had a deprived childhood, I didn't. There was just me and my Mom and money was always tight but I never went hungry or cold and I always knew I was loved. My Mom worked from the time I was small and we had good neighbors who looked out for me after school. I was a good student, top of the class in most subjects and my Mom taught me to value education and knowledge and though we couldn't afford trips to the movies or theme parks it cost us nothing to access the library. . .I always thought of myself as being a bit like Matilda from the children's story. . .though without the special powers and a head teacher like Miss Trunchbull.

I wasn't into war games or team sports and there was never enough money for me to have the electronic gizmos and games that most of my classmates flashed around after the holidays or birthdays. . .a fact that probably saved me from being labeled a geek. . . .you can't be a computer geek if you have no computer! No, my passion was comic book heroes; Superman, Batman, Iron Man, I loved them all but my favorite was always The Invisible Man. . .of all the special skills, gadgets and special powers my heroes possessed, that to me was always the most intriguing, the one with the most potential. To a small boy with patched jeans and an oversized winter coat from the Goodwill store the thought of being able to slip into a room or the cinema un-noticed, to be able to access all the attractions that were beyond the reach of my everyday life was intoxicating. I imagined myself as a spy or a secret agent.

If only life was as simple as schoolboy dreams.

I thought being invisible would be cool. I was wrong.

I thought you could only be lonely if you were alone. I was wrong there, too.

I'm alone in a crowd and I have my childhood wish. . .

I have become The Invisible Man.

Looking back, it started more than a year ago. . .maybe earlier, though it was only at that point that the enormity of it hit me.

It's always just been my Mom and me; no Dad, no extended family, just us and a few good friends and co-workers of my Mom's from the neighborhood.

Mom brought the house around the time I started in Kindergarten and when she went back to work. She worked as a research assistant at the University. It never paid well and keeping up with the mortgage was a constant struggle but she got good health coverage for us both, a fact we were very grateful for when I was diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager.

Paying for Medical school was always beyond Mom's budget but I worked hard for a scholarship and took out loans and grants and took a part-time job at NCIS to help finance my studies and I have had part-time jobs since I was twelve years old so hard work has never worried me. I was only a few months short of graduation when my Mom gave me the news.

Motor Neurone Disease.

I think Mom had known or at least suspected for a while but it was only when it started affecting her ability to work that she consulted a Doctor. I had been so snowed under with studying and trying to fit in my shifts at the Navy Yard that I hadn't been home for a few weeks. . .not that I was neglecting her, we still talked every couple of days on the phone but if I'd been around more maybe we would have caught it sooner. Not that there is any effective treatment for MND, the only real question was just how quickly the symptoms would develop.

I walked around in a fog for days, spent hours on the internet searching for information or miracles and there were none to be found. . .or at least there was loads of information, all of it depressing and without a glimmer of hope and not a miracle in sight.

If anyone noticed my preoccupation at work, they never mentioned it. I know I was not at my best but when you're known for being a klutz people tend to overlook the obvious manifestations of distress. I still tripped over my own feet, still managed to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, especially if Agent Gibbs was around. The man scares me. Always has, probably always will. He only has to raise that disdainful eyebrow or flash me that glare and I can understand why he is so successful at interrogations. It's no coincidence that unless I am actually elbows deep in assisting with an autopsy when I hear that swish of the autopsy doors and recognize Agent Gibbs' footfalls that I beat a hasty retreat to restock the van or remember an urgent errand

Anyway, I wasn't sleeping well and eating was impossible with my stomach tied up in knots and my bloodsugar went all to pot and I passed out with a hypo attack at a crimescene. . .not my finest hour. Once Dr Mallard got me sorted out and back to the Navy yard I got a quiet but blistering lecture on the importance of taking care of my health. I thought then that he would ask me what was going on and, if he had asked, I would probably have confided in him about my Mom but he didn't. He is usually so perceptive, particularly about his younger colleagues, taking a paternal interest in their wellbeing and is usually the first to pick up on tensions or upset.

If I had just spoken up then, maybe things would have turned out differently but you can't turn back the clock. I thought I had a good reason for not sharing my worries with him. He was going through his own problems. He had recently taken the distressing decision to have his Mother moved to a nursing home for full-time care. Her physical frailty and mental deterioration had become too much for him to cope with at home even with the help of live–in nurses. He was already grieving for her decline and I didn't feel it right or proper to lay on him the added burden of my problems.

By the time of my graduation Mom was becoming increasingly frail and had become reliant on a wheelchair, though she did manage to stand for my Graduation photo's, more I think from a matter of pride than anything. . .we both knew by then that it was almost certainly the last significant occasion of my life that she would be there to share. Dr Mallard should have been there too but, as so often happens in his line of work, a work call came in about a big-wig Admiral who had been found dead in suspicious circumstances and Sec Nav had specifically asked for him to do the autopsy. It was another opportunity to confide that slipped through my fingers.

It was not long after that that Mom and I had to make our own tough decisions. It was becoming clear to us both that Mom was getting to the point of not being able to cope at home on her own and the type of personal help she required was such that she was not comfortable asking me to provide it.

We spent a week of my leave visiting and evaluating nursing homes until we found one on the outskirts of Fairfax that she felt comfortable with. She moved in on the Friday, taking just a few personal and sentimental items with her and on the Saturday I called a realtor to advise me on selling the house. I needed a quick sale and Ms Ryan, the realtor advised me against spending much on setting it up for sale; It was a small, tired house in a respectable but not fashionable neighborhood. An ideal first time purchase for someone wanting to flip it for a quick and tidy profit.

I ordered a skip and a storage container and with the help of a neighbor emptied the house the next weekend, too depressed to do more than discard the trash and store everything else to sort out later. All the mementoes of our lives packed away in boxes. I wandered through the empty rooms and for the first time allowed myself to weep for my Mom and for me and for a future that was being cut short too soon. The disease was taking her away from me much more quickly than the Doctor had originally predicted.

The house sold for enough to pay for Mom's nursing home; her Health insurance covered her medical expenses but not her daily care and now that she was no longer working and I was no longer a student I was having to find my own health insurance.

After I graduated I was offered a job at NCIS, though not the one I wanted. It wasn't anyone's fault, not really, but it was a blow. It had always been understood that when I qualified I would be taken on as Assistant Medical Examiner under Dr Mallards lead. It was a prestigious position and one under which I would continue to learn from and study with Doctor Mallard and eventually, if I proved myself capable, to be his successor when he retired. But when the time came financial constraints and budget cuts had resulted in a recruitment freeze. I was offered a short term contract for the position I had been doing for the last five years. . .Autopsy assistant, a technician grade. Dr Mallard assured me he would continue to teach me even though there was nothing in the budget for training courses or professional development and that he would continue to push for my advancement. He wasn't happy with the situation and he told me that he felt I had been let down but that I should hold on until the situation resolved.

I took his advice. I needed the money and the limited benefits that the short-term contract provided and I needed the stability.

I had just signed on for a second short –term contract when Mom's condition deteriorated. She was moved to a Hospice in Reston and I spent every spare minute with her. I had to put my life on hold; I had no time for friends or socializing and Bree, my girlfriend, took my neglect of her badly. She couldn't cope with illness, she wouldn't come with me to see Mom and she nagged me about not spending enough time with her. When she gave me an ultimatum I'm afraid it was no contest. . .my time with Mom was fast running out and I wasn't going to lose a minute of it to someone so selfish that she couldn't see past her own self-importance.

Mom and Mrs Mallard died just a few days apart and both had very small and very private internment ceremonies. I only knew about Mrs Mallard because I took a message for Dr Mallard in autopsy and as it was clear he neither wanted nor welcomed any expression of condolence I respected his wishes. I kept my own loss private and threw myself back into work.

Did anyone else at work notice?

Why would they!

I can't say I had anything but a working relationship with any of them. Abby and McGee were usually pretty friendly and tolerated my presence and Ziva was OK, although she scares me almost as much as Agent Gibbs does and I never know when she is serious or teasing. At one time, when Agent DiNozzo was in charge I thought he and I might be developing the sort of work friendship that DR Mallard had with Agent Gibbs; he would find me out to bounce ideas around if he was getting frustrated with a case and needed a fresh perspective. . .it was fun while it lasted, to feel part of the team even if it was a secret between us. But then Agent Gibbs came back and I was relegated back to the periphery. . .once again the geeky klutz who could always be relied upon to put his foot in it.

Autopsy Gremlin! I hate that nick-name; one of Agent Dinozzo's I'm sure.

How long does it take to be accepted as one of the gang, to be respected for the knowledge and training you have? I know I don't always make the best impression but after more than five years is it too much to expect more than patronizing dismissal.

I see it in the rolled eyes and the shrugged shoulders, in Agent Gibbs' put-downs and even in Dr Mallard's occasional short tempered reprimands. After 5 years I am still blamed every time we are late to a crime scene, even though Doctor Mallard is the navigator who disregards the instructions of the Sat Nav GPS system I purchased for the Van and insists I follow his directions. I know the team thinks it's funny but the joke rubbed thin for me a long time ago.

Should I have told them about losing my Mom? Maybe I should but what I really wanted was for someone to notice, someone to care enough to ask. They see me every day but none of them see me as a person with a life beyond the walls of the Autopsy suite.

And bringing in Interns! When I'm still in professional limbo!

Am I bitter? I guess I am.

Am I lonely? Desperately.

Am I depressed? Well, who wouldn't be!

And the final straw?

It was a Friday and I was called up to the Human Resource Dept to discuss signing up for another temporary contract as my current one had only two days left to run. I asked about the Assistant ME's post only to be informed that it had been permanently moth-balled because no case supporting its importance to the long term future Agency had been submitted during the funding review.

I walked out in a daze, not just out of the office but out of the building. I sat on a bench in the dark and tossed my cellphone into the river when the persistent ringing became an irritation beyond bearing.

Detachment morphed into burning fury and the need to lash out was overwhelming. I'm not and never have been a violent person but at that moment I wanted to hurt someone they way I had been hurt.

No one had fought for me; not the Director and not Dr Mallard and it didn't matter if it was inaction, distraction or just plain indifference.

Well, there were other jobs, other training schemes. I'd apply to the FBI and if they had nothing I'd see if my Professor could give me some contacts to explore. I had nothing to keep me in or near DC: no family, no home and no relationships worth the paper they are written on.

Autopsy was deserted when I finally calmed down enough to be civil to anyone I came across. Not that I had any intention of disclosing my intentions. I was under no obligation to give notice as my contract would expire over the weekend and there was no one I felt deserved the courtesy. I emptied my locker and walked away, leaving my security pass with the Guard at the front gate.

And like the super hero in the final frame of a comic-book, The Invisible Man disappeared into the night in search of a new adventure.