"Thanks for waiting," I said to my friend Pauline, as I parked the stang in the parking lot of the funeral home, and climbed out.
"Good timing," she said. "I was just about to head back home."
"You don't mind going in again?" I asked. Pauline shook her head. I grinned, a dumb joke popping into my head, the way it always does in times of stress. "You could always walk back in and say, 'I had so much fun the first time, I just had to do it again!'"
Pauline shook her head and smiled. So did Corb, when I told that to him, later on.
"How are things going in there?" I asked.
"It's so sad," she said, shaking her head. "His mother is so upset. She just broke down crying at one point, and couldn't stop for about five minutes. I waited until she composed herself to go over."
We walked into the funeral parlor, past the sympathetic silent slightly-smiling person who held the door open for us. I walked over to sign the book. I flipped through it, first, to see who had come before. "Do you see anyone we know?" asked Pauline.
I pointed to Mary-Beth, who had gone in with Pauline the first time. I pointed to her signature, sheer sarcasm. "Oh, look. Mary-Beth was here!"
The person standing before the coffin rose from a kneeling position and moved away. It was my turn. I took a deep breath. "Well. Here goes nothing."
I moved forward, and knelt in front of the coffin.
It took me aback, for a minute. He looked so alive. I half expected him to sit up and start talking to me.
And he hadn't changed much, in some twenty mumble mumble years, either. He looked almost exactly the way he had in high school. Same full face, same shock of wild blond curly hair, Surely a distant relative of Harpo Marx, although without the same manic intensity. But quiet, just like the always-mute Harpo.
Patrick was just that. A soft spoken man, with a quiet, gentle voice.
He had been dressed in an orange suit, not the typical formal blue suit you'd see most men wearing. At least, at a moment like this.
It made me smile, almost. And, it made sense. I'd read from the obituary that Patrick owned his own floral shop, and even in high school, you could see that a desire to stand out--a love for an outward display of beauty--was important to him. He dressed himself, he positioned himself, clearly throughout his life, as if he were a tall walking bouquet of flowers...bright, vibrant colors, with a splash of blond on top, like petals of orchards. Not a traditionally handsome man, per se, but he took what he had and he made it his own, he made it lovely, and one-of-a-kind.
I said a quick prayer, looked at Patrick's resting form, tried to think of something profound. "You were a nice guy," was all I could come up with, silently, in my head. "It sounds like you suffered a lot, in the end. I'm sorry about that."
I stood up, turned around, and moved over to the bereaved. I instantly recognized his mother, standing at the front of the line. She moved to hug me, then stopped and quickly held out her hand, realizing that she didn't know who I was.
"I'm Ted," I said, and gave her my full name.
She recognized it right away, which surprised me. "Oh, Ted! How are you?" she said.
Suddenly, a wave of memory. A warm kitchen, talking to her, many years ago, at a party. She had a gossipy, easy manner. She was the kind of woman I always instantly warmed up to. Back then, mothers were my specialty, because I was so non-threatening.
I had liked her kitchen, had enjoyed talking with her. She had made me feel welcome.
"You look a lot different than you did," she confessed.
"I know," I replied. "My hair eluded me, somewhere along the way." I touched my scalp. "But it's completely voluntary, of course."
She laughed, and pointed to a bald man at the end of the line. "Same with Patrick's brother," she said. "He wore too many baseball caps."
"Mine's from all that time on the stage. All those bright lights!"
"You made her laugh," said Pauline, after I had gone through the line, and we were back in the parking lot.
"That's all I know how to do, at wakes," I replied. "It's such an awkward situation. I never can find the right touching phrase to say. They just fly right out of my head, the minute I'm in the situation. Replaced by silliness."
"I should have told her how warm her kitchen was," I said to Pauline, fretting over our conversation. "How much I enjoyed their parties. How included they made me feel. They seemed to have a really close family."
"She would have liked to have heard that," said Pauline.
I turned for a moment. "Should I go back in?"
Pauline laughed. "You made her laugh. That was probably enough."
I nodded, realizing the folly of what I had contemplated. Pauline and I said our goodbyes. I didn't hug her, although I wanted to. Survivors, we were.
I called my parents, on my way home. "I went to a wake for a high school friend," I said to my father.
"How old was he?"
"About 45, I'd say."
"45? That's so young."
I laughed. "Well, it's hardly 20, dad."
Dad sighed. "No, but when you're on the other side of 50, take my word. It looks young."
Of course, dad was right. It all depends on your perspective.
And it does seem young, far too young. One doesn't like to think of one's friends from a younger age passing away, but of course it happens, all the time. And with greater frequency, as one gets older.
It's a shadow on the doorstep, that's what it is. A suggestion that nothing lasts forever.
I wish they did, though. I'd prefer to think about days past as if they still lived on, somewhere. That I could somehow walk into his house, as it had existed, many years ago. Re-enter that warm kitchen. Pick up a mug of hot chocolate. Chuckle over trivial stories.
Of course, that's not possible. Days past are days past, and you can never go back, never, and they honestly start to fade with the years, like photographs. Truth is, I no longer remember that warm kitchen THAT well.
I could probably look up some stories, if I wanted to, in the journal I kept in high school. But even then, who knows how much I actually wrote about those nights, if at all?
The past is fleeting, certainly. Even so, I'd like to think that certain pockets of warmth last forever. And I think they do, really.
At least, in our hearts.
What I'm writing: Pictures of You, Chapter 24
What I'm reading: Past Imperfect, J.M. Cornwell