Nicholas (Nick) Haliday, an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency for more than thirty-six years, died in 2008 at the age of seventy-three. He was predeceased by his wife Eleanor by two years.
While cleaning out his belongings, Haliday’s two adult children discovered an unpublished, typewritten memoir titled “Miraflores” in a folder buried in the back of their father’s filing cabinet. The date on the manuscript is June 1970. Their father never mentioned the existence of the memoir, which describes his first assignment for the agency in Panama in 1958.
After reading the manuscript, the children retained a lawyer, who contacted the CIA seeking permission to publish the manuscript. After repeated requests and a lengthy wait of nearly a decade, the agency returned the memoir with minor redactions.
The children agreed that their father’s story would disadvantage no one who is alive today. They are proud of his service to the country and recognize that there are no saints in that business, just sinners with varying degrees of complicity.
I was seventeen years old when my mother killed herself.
She was an alcoholic and died at home from an overdose of Placidyl and vodka, while I sat daydreaming in my high school English class.
It’s easier to write this long after she died. Time acts like the slow drip of water in a subterranean cavern to soften those sharp, rocky emotions. This much is clear now.
But at the time of her death, my adolescent brain was doing what adolescent brains do: muddle the strange external world with internal volcanic emotions. So, with no other likely candidates, I blamed my father for my mother’s death.
That sour relationship with my father led me — of all things — to a career as a spy in our country’s intelligence service. To this day, my calamitous first assignment in Central America seems gauzy and unreal, as if it happened to someone else. Anyone but me — a confused, angry, and fragile young man whose job was to save the Panama Canal, the entire thirty-seven mile long ditch that we stole fair and square from Columbia many years before.
And, strangely, it all started with my mother’s death. Stick with me; it’s a tale that I’m both proud of and humiliated by.
The day she died, Mrs. Riley, the headmaster’s secretary, interrupted English class and whispered to my teacher. I watched as both sets of eyes swiveled like tank turrets until they settled on me. I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong and it didn’t take long for my classmates to follow the adults’ eyes. Several giggled in anticipation of some fabulous punishment coming my way. The infraction had to be something high on the private-school infraction scale for the headmaster’s secretary to interrupt a class.
“Nick, would you please follow me to the office,” Mrs. Riley said. “And bring your things with you.”
The “bring-your-things-part” was not a good sign. My friend Dave said in a very loud whisper, “I’ll write you in prison.” There was a smattering of chuckles, but I should have known something was wrong when Mr. Mandrake, the English teacher, said, “Shut up, David.”
It wasn’t Mandrake’s manner to snap at students, especially at a snotty private school like St. Mark’s in Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Riley said nothing as we walked down the cold, empty hallway, our steps bouncing sharply off the metal lockers that stood like a frowning gauntlet. I began to panic because she was typically a warm, pleasant, adult and her behavior at that moment was oddly distant.
She walked hurriedly a few steps ahead of me as if she preferred to not see me. When we swept into the office, the other adults raised their eyes to look at me, then looked away. I was confused by all of this and remember furiously trying to guess what I had done wrong.
“Nick, why don’t you go into the headmaster’s office?” Mrs. Riley said. “He’s waiting for you.”
Pausing only slightly, I walked right into Mr. Negosian’s office. He was sitting at his desk writing something. He looked up and flashed a smile, though it was gone in a millisecond.
“Nick,” he said, “could you close the door?”
I swung the huge solid-oak door shut, hearing it click solidly into place like a bank vault. He gestured for me to come over to his desk and told me to put down my books.
“Nick, there’s been an accident in your family, and you need to call home. Here’s the phone.”
“OK,” I said, feeling a mixture of relief and embarrassment. My face and neck flushed.
As soon as Negosian mentioned “accident,” I knew it was my mother. Her drinking was so extreme that she sometimes fell and hurt herself, or she would drop and shatter a glass, cutting her feet in the process. As an only child with a busy and mostly absent father, taking care of mother fell to me and to our loyal maid Elma.
One time mother fell out of bed late at night and hit her head on the corner of the bedside table. My father was on another of his long overseas trips, so Elma and I cleaned up mother the best we could. But she bled a lot. In the end, she needed five stitches to close the gash.
For days afterwards, she would delicately touch the tiny black stitches with her fingertips as if she were a blind person inspecting a stranger’s face.
So, I assumed that mother had another one of those accidents.
I dialed the headmaster’s rotary phone, watching each number mechanically return to its starting place. I waited while my home line rang four times. Then, instead of Elma answering, my father answered.
“Hello,” he said in a tone that was a half-octave higher than normal.
“Father, this is Nick,” I said. “Headmaster Negosian told me I should call home. He said there’s been an accident.”
“There’s been a terrible accident, Nick.” He paused for several seconds and I could hear him breathe into the mouthpiece. “Your mother is dead. She died early this afternoon.”
I bit my bottom lip, which was a nervous habit that I still have, and raised my eyes to look at Negosian. But he had his head down, writing something to avoid eye contact. I panned the headmaster’s office, taking in the pictures on his wall showing ceremonial grip-and-grin photos of school benefactors, Glee Club members, and groundbreakings. In fact, there were so many of these pictures on his walls that I followed them around like a trail of breadcrumbs. My reverie was interrupted by my father.
“I’m sending my driver to pick you up. Could you please hand the phone to Mr. Negosian?”
“My father wants to talk to you,” I said, handing the heavy black Bakelite handset to the headmaster.
It was difficult to know what they talked about because Negosian didn’t say much. He nodded a lot and said things like, “absolutely,” “that will not be a problem,” and “certainly.”
After he hung up, Negosian looked at me for a second and said, “Nick, I’m very sorry to hear about your mother’s passing. Please accept the condolences of everyone at St. Mark’s. I’m sure you’re in a state of shock at the suddenness of this — this tragedy.” He shook his head back and forth and sighed deeply. “Your father has a driver on the way over here. I’d like you to just sit in that chair there and we’ll let you know when he arrives.”
My father’s drivers were always changing so I didn’t know this guy. I remember he kept glancing in the rearview mirror of that cavernous car to look at me. I kept busy by counting the number of fire hydrants we passed.
And I thought of my poor mother. At this point, I didn’t know the nature of the “accident,” so I tried to conjure up how she might have died. It seemed like an uncaring thing to do at that moment, but when you have an alcoholic parent, well, you spend your life expecting bad things. And you grow numb, which is perhaps the worst part.
To be honest, Elma and I often worried that mother would drown in the bathtub, because she insisted on soaking there with a book, a martini, an ashtray, and her pack of Viceroy cigarettes. She would put her “goodies,” as she called them, on the wicker clothes hamper that she would pull over to the tub. Elma scolded mother for doing this, but of course, she couldn’t stop her.
One evening I heard Elma scream; then I heard a loud thump upstairs that shook the floor. I ran up to find Elma pounding on my mother’s back as she lay face down on the floor of the bathroom, her hair matted over her face. Mother was covered only partly with a big towel that Elma had thrown over her back.
“Mrs. Haliday!” Elma screamed. “Wake up. Wake up!”
Seeing me wide-eyed — I was in the seventh grade at the time — Elma said, “Nicky, call the ambulance. Your mom drowned!”
But just then mother coughed and spit up what seemed like a gallon of water. She moaned, raised her head, and looked toward the doorway where I was standing. Her dark wet hair stuck to her face like a pile of seaweed. As she rose up on her elbows, I saw her breasts, bone white and cylindrical. Seeing that really bothered me.
Driving home from school, I was convinced she drowned in the bathtub. In truth, I was so confused and stunned that I could only concentrate on that stupid bathtub.
We pulled in front of the house, and the State Department driver tried to open the door for me, but I jumped out lugging a pile of books under my arm. There was a police car in front and another car that I didn’t recognize.
I walked in the front door and heard voices in the living room and was about to go in there when I froze. I stood in the hallway for several minutes, listening to the muffled voices when I heard Elma yell as she spied me from the kitchen, “Good heavens, Nicky!” She ran over and smothered me with a hug.
The awful realization of my mother’s death was starting to worm its way into my consciousness, as hard as I tried to avoid it. I felt a strange mixture of dread, relief, embarrassment, anger, and sadness.
So, I cried.
Well, it was more of a loud whimper. But all those confusing years of embarrassment and anger around my mother’s alcoholism were swirling near the surface. I dropped my books when I couldn’t hold them any longer. My father came running out of the living room and he hugged Elma and me.
We made a silly kind of scene — an adult sandwich with me in the middle surrounded by the two slices of bread — my father and Elma, our black housekeeper.
After a minute or so we broke up, and my father asked me to go with Elma into the kitchen while he finished talking to the police. As he turned to reenter the living room, I peeked and saw two policemen in uniform sitting uncomfortably on the couch, their silver badges sparkling in the light.
Elma made a sandwich for me and poured a glass of milk, but I couldn’t eat. I sipped at the milk.
“Poor Nicky,” she kept muttering to herself. “Poor Mrs. Haliday.”
At this point, I was just trying to figure out what to do. I had no idea how to act or behave. My mind was blank. “Poor Mother,” I kept repeating to myself. “Why did she have to fall asleep in that stupid bathtub? Damn her.”