Whip-Smart: Support System
"If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on, believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would livin' do me
God only knows what I'd be without you"
Beach Boys, "God Only Knows"
There is nothing quite like those last few minutes of sleep before your alarm clock goes off. You can lay there, with your eyes shut and your mind closed off to the reality of the outside world. Unfortunately, the outside world starts seeping into your dreams and your tropical paradise and drinks served in coconuts by a barely clothed hottie are being interrupted by honking car horns, the clang of the next door neighbor’s chimes, and the slow dawning realization that this has all just been a dream.
I was coming to this very realization last Tuesday as I laid in my bed with a blue pillow over my face as I tried to desperately not to wake up but the clunking noise of nearby construction and the ear bleeding screeches of tweens walking to middle school had given me a one way ticket from my tropical paradise and back to freezing cold reality.
I turned off my alarm that had yet to go off, always a personal triumphant of sorts for me, and shuffled past the large painting of tiger eyes that hang across from my bed. When I bought it my senior year of high school, my mother said it was tacky. I paused for a brief moment and then told her that was the point.
My mother was never too keen on tackiness and that was why I was up earlier than usual, carrying a load of dirty laundry to the basement and finding my pinstriped dress pants I hadn’t worn since graduation a few months ago. So I yawned and loaded the washer with my clothes and put on my blue coat over my Pillsbury Doughboy pajamas and slipped on my black shoes and went outside to sneak a morning cigarette before my mother arrived in a whirl of slightly tactless suggestions and baked goods.
I watched the house across the street, Jack’s house, for any sort of activity but there was none yet. I guess you would call it morbid curiosity, me standing out there and smoking and wondering when the family was going to show up and how they were holding up and would it be disrespectful if they saw me to give them my sincere condolences while wearing my Pillsbury Doughboy pajamas. A car drove past and I flicked my cigarette into the alley.
As I went back into my house, I looked at Jack’s home again. The curtains were closed and it felt like even the house was in mourning. And it’s thoughts like that, about death and funerals and mourning, which can make a person not want to get out of bed.
My mother arrived around ten in the morning with her purse in one hand and a green plastic bag covering an outfit in the other. She quickly hugged me and closed the door and sat down on the couch and started to polish one of her shoes. There was no pausing, just this one seamless motion that utterly amazed me in its gracefulness.
“You know,” she said, “when my father died when he was 61, I thought that he was far too young to die.” She picked up the shoe she was shining, grimaced a bit, added more polish, and then proceeded to shine and extol. “The very next year my grandfather died and he was in his eighties and I still thought he was too young to die.” She paused again, holding the shoe up in the air and letting the light reflected off the newly shined surface. “It’s amazing how the mind adjusts its thinking pattern. At some point, you realize that most lives that end at pretty much any age are lives cut short.”
“That’s true,” I said, nodding my head.
“How’s your father holding up?” she said, almost in a whisper as if he was lurking somewhere in the house and not at his office.
“Stoic as always,” I replied. “The only thing he has really said is that he thinks it’s appropriate that Jack’s funeral is on Valentine’s Day because he’s so loveable.”
She nodded her head and pulled out some tissue from her purse to dab some emerging tears from her eyes. She composed herself quickly, talking about how she needed something to eat before she took her medicine for her diabetes as I went back to doing my laundry.
While I did my laundry and listened to some tunes, my friend Carmen instant messaged me to discuss the Valentine’s Day card she had received from her supposed one true love. The card was sweet but not mushy and had apparently plucked all the right heart strings as she gushed about this seemingly perfect man who had sent her a perfect card. There was, though, one inescapable flaw about him.
“He’s in jail for selling cocaine,” she confessed. “But he is so nice and he was the one who was really supportive of me going back to school.”
“He sounded so good until the whole Scarface quality about him,” I wrote. “Maybe you can go visit him in the clink or something.”
“It’s like 3.5 hours away and they keep crazy visiting hours,” Carmen bemoaned.
“I was kidding,” I sighed.
“Well I wasn’t,” she said.
I laughed a bit and told her that I had to go do the rest of my laundry. But before I went, I sent Denton a message while he was signed off.
“I doubt a person who says love is a big no-no for him will like this,” I wrote, “but happy Valentine’s Day.”
We arrived at the funeral home at two in the afternoon. Jack’s son ushered us into the main area to look a photo memorial they had put together. We slowly walked past each picture. It was so odd for me to see Jack as a young man, a young man who played basketball at one time. I stared at the photos while my mother chatted with some of Jack’s relatives and my father swapped stories with people. And punctuating all of this were the occasional pounding noises coming from above. You see, the funeral home was having some construction work being done so through the course of the afternoon, greetings and conversations and speeches would be interrupted by a loud BAM or CLANG.
My mother and I found some seats as my father continued talking to Jack’s family. I looked at the little program about what was going to happen and so did my mother. We were both being dutifully silent when my mother decided to interrupt this moment of quiet reflection with a request or, more accurately, a demand.
“I know that your father wants to be buried in La Crosse but not me,” she said as we each remained looking down at our programs. “If you bury me in La Crosse, I will haunt you if it’s possible.”
“Any other requests?” I asked.
“If I die when you’re older I give you permission to cremate me,” she said. “And if you do, spread my ashes. I don’t want to spend eternity on somebody’s mantle.”
I had to admire my mother’s ability through her grief to still be able to micromanage.
At 3, the service began. Jack’s grandson and daughter-in-law both gave stirring speeches about Jack. It was like drifting off in this collective daydream as we all closed our eyes and nodded our heads about how he had the best lawn in the neighborhood due to his aversion for leaves, how he was always helpful, and how he was the friendliest person. If I closed my eyes hard enough, I could still see him sitting at the edge of his garage with an empty lawn chair next to him and a small bowl of water. As his grandson noted, anybody that came by was more than welcomed to sit down with him and if they had a dog, the dog was always offered some water before they went on their way.
I opened my eyes and looked over to the chair next to me and saw the weeping face of one of Jack’s relatives as she nodded her head and then stood up and grabbed some tissues for herself from a plastic pink tissue box across from her. I looked at my parents and particularly my father, so reserved since he had found about Jack’s passing, slowly having tears coming down his face as the family mentioned him and thanked him for being such a good friend.
The preacher asked if anybody else had anything to say and my dad slowly rose from his seat and had his program rolled up in one hand. He talked about how Jack had given them tools when my parents first moved across the street and how they had hit it off from there.
“He was like an uncle and I am going to miss him,” he said, his body swaying a little bit. “And I consider myself an honorary member of his family.”
He sat down and pulled out a white handkerchief and wiped his tears. When my mother offered him a tissue, he declined and said he was fine. He was stoic once again.
That night we had family dinner and after the dishes were washed and put away, my mother decided to open her care package she had made for us before she knew she was going to be with us on Valentine’s Day. On the top of the box there were our names written inside of paper hearts and a big “Do Not Open Until the 14th” on top of it as well. My mother peeled back the tape on each side of the container and pulled off the red napkins she had used for color and concealment. And there they were: rows and rows of shortbread cookies in the shape of hearts with a few chocolate hearts tossed in as well.
“I probably shouldn’t have any of these things but this is Valentine’s Day so I am,” she said as she scooped up a couple and headed to the living room to watch TV with my father.
The next morning I went and checked to see if I had any greetings from Denton since my Facebook account was blissfully filled with happy Valentine's Day messages from Agatha, Duran, Margaret, Carmen and a whole host of other pals.
"I spent it, after all day at the U, having a beer alone and being in bed, alone, by 9 PM," Denton had written to me. "Yea, big, happy, V-Day."
I paused for a moment and then began typing. "I went to a funeral," I said. "I win."
I logged off shortly after that and put on some clothes and went outside not for a morning smoke but for a morning walk to look for jobs because sometimes you have to stop dreaming with the covers over your head and just live.