‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, Watching the Tide Roll Away’ – Otis Reading
I sit on the dock. My feet dangle in the water. They barely skim the surface. The tops of my feet are dry. I imagine I am able to stand on the water. Something, as a child, I swore to myself I would learn to do. I smile with the memory.
My brother and I used to jump into the water from this dock. Once we learned to swim, within three days of each other, our pop let us swim alone. I guess he figured we could save each other if something went wrong. We lived way outside of any town. We had to be bussed over twelve miles to school. We were eleven months apart, and in the same grade. We had our own friends in school, but we only had each other the rest of the time. The bigger kids used to tell us that there were ‘gators in the water. Of course we didn’t believe them, for the most part. For the first few months after we learned how to swim, neither of us would go in without the other. We never admitted we were scared, it just was more fun with each other. We genuinely liked each other, but hated each other too, the way only siblings can. If we weren’t scared, we would have gone in alone. We both knew this, and knew each other knew, but never admitted it. We were strong, not weak.
Pop still owns the house. He’s in a nursing home in Biloxi. He has Alzheimer’s. He rarely remembers Frank and me. I haven’t told him yet, and I’m not sure I will. He’ll get really upset, and then ask me five minutes later if I’ve seen Frank lately. What’s the point? My mom died when delivering Frank. Obviously I don’t remember her. I was just shy of one year old. People ask me if I missed having a mom growing up. How the hell would I know? I never had one to know what to miss. Pop raised Frank and me the old fashioned way. We got a whooping when we needed one, but he was always there when we needed him too. I don’t understand this new-age crap of no spanking and all. How can you teach a child right from wrong otherwise?
As I look out over the lake, the lake where I spent all my time growing up, I remember more. Frank and I were five and six when Pop taught us how to swim. We lived the next thirteen years going into that lake almost every day. I was more familiar with it, that with my own home. As we got older we’d sit out there with our friends, and sometimes girls. It was beautiful on a warm spring or fall evening. The only thing to be done with the lake in summer was to be in it.
I loved Frank from the day he was born. Pop was devastated by Ma’s death. Aunt Trudy from Chicago came down to help. She stayed with us on and off for three years. She would go back up to Chicago for a while and come back down. I think we must have been a handful, but I can’t remember that time at all. She came to visit twice a year after that, so we’re still somewhat close. She was the one who told me how protective over Frank I was, when he was a baby. She said I always wanted to hold him, and give him his bottle, sometimes swiping it. I suppose Trudy will come down tomorrow. I haven’t called her yet. I just don’t think I can get the words out of my mouth.
I wonder if I should try to get power of attorney over Pop’s affairs. He certainly can’t figure out anything for himself. I know I’ll end up with the house anyway. I’d like to get my hands on it now. I don’t want to sound like a money grabbing son of a bitch. If I sell it, it could help a lot with the cost of Pop’s care. If I keep it, I could move in, and be nearer to him. Right now I’m in Jackson, but the house is in between Mobile and Biloxi, right on the Alabama side of the Alabama-Mississippi border. I’m a freelance photographer, and do pretty well for myself. There’s no need for me to be stuck in Jackson. It might be nice to be back in the old place. I started shooting pictures when I was thirteen. I’d been begging Pop for a camera for two years, and he finally caved and got me one for my thirteenth birthday. I have been fascinated by photography ever since.
Frank was never creative. He was smart as hell though. Way smarter than me and Pop. Pop said mom was a genius. Frank definitely took after her in that way. Frank went to Duke for undergrad, and went to medical school in John Hopkins – with a full ride. He was pretty much a celebrity in Denville, Alabama. From what I hear, there are still pictures of him up at the High School. As a ‘you can do well if you just work’ reminder. Of course they don’t tell you that you have to have brains to burn. Frank could have been anything he wanted. Within medicine he could have been anything he wanted. I always assumed he’d be a brain surgeon. He chose psychiatry, which shocked everyone. He loved it though. Whenever he spoke about it, his eyes lit up. Whenever he read papers on new research, he would talk to anyone and everyone about them. It didn’t matter that none of his audience had much of a clue what he was talking about.
Frank worked in New Orleans. That was another surprise. We expected him to go to Mass. Gen, John Hopkins, or The Mayo Clinic. I guess he missed the South. Frank and I got together at least once a month. We were still tight. Being kids of a single dad who worked all the time, we learned quickly how to fend for ourselves. We needed each other. We fought like any other brothers, but we were different than any of our friends were with their brothers. We had to be. We took turns visiting each other, so Frank would come up to Jackson, and then he’d travel back through Biloxi to visit Pop. Pop stopped recognizing either of us six months ago. Before that it was hit or miss. On a given day, I never knew if I’d be me, Frank, or some old friend of his from Iraq. Even minute to minute it could change. It was hard. On us and him. He sometimes knew he was forgetting things. He’d gone far enough now, however, that he rarely remembered anything about his life. It was easier that way for everyone. I remember him being so strong and interesting. As kids, Frank and I would help him work on his motorcycle, ask him to light a bonfire, help us build a treehouse. It is heartbreaking to see him a shell of his former self. I try not to dwell on it. Life moves on.
I scroll through my contacts, until I reach Aunt Trudy. I don’t want to make this call. My thumb hovers over the ‘call’ button for a few seconds before I touch it. Once I do I feel an overwhelming sense of doom and hang up before it rings once. I know I have to do this. I should just get it over with, but I am scared. I’m scared to say it out loud. It makes it real again. I know Trudy will be devastated. Our not-quite mom, but the only one we ever knew. I love her dearly, as did Frank. I know she loves us in return. She still doesn’t have a cell phone. I don’t know if I want Uncle Clayton to answer or not. If he does, do I tell him first? Let him tell Trudy? Tell him, and ask him to pass the phone to Trudy without telling her? These scenarios pass through my head, cycling one after the other. Once I do talk to her, whether first or second, what do I say? I touch the green call button again. This time I don’t hang up. It rings for what seems like forever. Just when I’m about to give up, the ringing stops with a click. Clayton picks up, his nasal Midwestern accent as strong as ever.
“Helloooo,” he starts. Frank and I used to crack up with the way he said ‘hello’, and his strong accent. I smile with the memory, but it fades as quickly as it comes.
“Hey Uncle Clayton, it’s Damon. How are you?” I ask.
“Oh, I’m fine, Damon. Just fine.” he responds. He was always a man of few words.
“Listen. I need to speak to Trudy. It’s not good. Stay by her will you.”
“What’s wrong Damon? Is it your father?” he asks.
“No Clayton, not dad. Will you put her on?”
“Sure Damon. Sure.”
I hear him put the phone on the table, and call for Trudy. When she’s nearer the phone I hear Clayton tell her it’s me on the phone. I hear shuffling, and Clayton telling her to sit down. As she picks up the phone, she thanks Clayton.
“Hi Damon. Your Uncle Clayton is getting all romantic in his old age.” she giggles. “He got me a chair to sit on and all.” She all out laughs.
I smile. She’s been such a central figure in my life. An amazing Aunt. I know I’m about to break her heart. I wish I hadn’t called for another couple of hours. Prolong her ignorance. But I did call, and here we are.
“Hey Trudy. How are you?” I feel like a fraud, shooting the breeze with her.
“Oh. I’m alright Damon. Alright. These old bones I’m not so sure about. I’m fine though.”
She’s always looks on the bright side. Never lets the normal inconveniences of life get her down.
“Listen. I have to talk to you about something. I don’t want to. It’s hard.”
“Is it your Pop Damon? Is he gone?” she sounds upset. Although she is mom’s sister, not Pop’s, they’re very close. She helped him raise his boys.
“No Trudy, it’s not.” I say wishing she was right, and immediately feeling guilty for thinking as much. “It’s Frank.” I choke up, but not completely.
“Damon. What is it? What’s wrong?” she’s speaking urgently now, her voice becoming much more high pitched.
Oh God. I don’t want to do this.
“Trudy. He’s gone. He’s gone.” I burst into tears. I can’t hold it in anymore. I haven’t cried at all since I found out last night. I’ve just been in shock. The dam has burst and there’s no stopping it. Not if I wanted to, which I don’t.
I hear enough to know Trudy dropped the phone. I hear it hit the table. I also hear her scream. Hear Clayton taking her into his arms. Whispering that it would be okay. He comes on the phone then.
“Damon, son, what is it?” he asks.
“Frank’s dead,” I somehow get out, before I burst into loud sobs.
“Damon. Damon. I’ll call you back once Trudy calms down. I love you.” Clayton says before hanging up.
I feel so alone. We are somewhat close to Clayton. He would sometimes come down South with Trudy. As we got older, Pop would ship us up North to Chicago. We had very few relatives. Trudy and Clayton were the only two we had any kind of regular contact with. I know he loves us. He and Trudy have no children. Clayton’s blood nieces and nephews live out West somewhere, and he rarely sees them. We are his family. I sit on the stairs, where I made the phone call from, for what seems like an eternity. I alternate between stoically analyzing the situation, thinking what had to be organized for the funeral, and sobbing uncontrollably. I must be there for thirty minutes or so, when Clayton calls back.
“Hi Clay,” I say between sniffles and sobs.
“Damon. Listen to me. I know this is the worst thing that ever happened. Trudy’s in shock. She keeps saying that first Barbara went and now Frank. I’m so sorry. Just tell me what you can, okay.” Clayton says.
“Clay. I don’t know how to do this. It’s too hard. I never knew my mom so it doesn’t bother me. I know this is really tough for Trudy too.” I go on still sobbing all the time. “I’m still not sure of anything, but I know it was a car accident. The State Troopers came in the early hours of this morning to tell me.” I explain. “They said it would take some time to figure out fault. I honestly don’t care whose fault it was, Clay. Frank’s dead.” more tears.
Clay interrupts gently. “Damon. Once I get Trudy calmed a little more, I’ll book our flights. I’ll let you know. We can let ourselves into the house if that’s okay with you?”
“God. Of course Uncle Clay. Please. I’m going to stay here for a while too.” I respond. “And Clay… I love you both too.” I finish.
“Okay son. We’ll see you tonight or in the morning. I’ll let you know.”
I put the phone down, barely able to stop crying. The tears still come, in rivers down my face. I miss Frank. He’s only been gone one day. He is in my head almost constantly. Once he leaves it, I remember almost immediately, and then feel guilty, and the tears spill again. I have to go to the funeral home. The hospital still hasn’t released the body. How fucked up is that? Frank is now ‘the body’. I need to pick out a casket, flowers, talk to the priest in Mobile. We had to go to Mobile every Sunday for mass. There are very few Catholics in Denville, so we made the trek each week. Frank and I loved it actually. Pop brought us for ice-cream afterwards in a tiny store right across the street from St. Michael’s. Each day we weren’t in too much trouble that was. It made up for mass. I haven’t been to St. Michael’s in years, maybe since I was eighteen.
I googled ‘St. Michael’s Church’ just to find a phone number. Who would have thought a church would have a website? Well St. Michael’s does. There it is on the screen. Welcome to the twenty-first century and then some. I don’t feel like I can face another phone call yet anyway. I see Fr. James is still the parish priest. He must be in his eighties now. Were priests allowed be in their eighties? Was there a limit? I both laugh at and chastise myself for laughing about it. I know I will have to call at some point, and just decide to get it over with. The phone is answered after one ring.
“Hello. St. Michael’s. This is Fr. James. How may I help you?” asks the man on the other end.
I can hardly believe that Fr. James has answered the phone himself.
“Fr. James. Hello. I’m sure you don’t remember me. I’m Damon Ryan…”
“Of course I do Damon. How are you? And how’s that brother of yours, Frank? You know, before you’re father got really sick with Alzheimer’s, he talked about you two all the time. Is he still with us, tell me?” he prattles on.
“Yes, Father. Pop is still here…”
“And where is he? Is he in Mobile or Jackson or where?”
“Father. I haven’t called you to talk about Pop. It’s Frank..”
“Well what’s wrong, Damon? Spit it out son.”
“Frank’s dead, Fr. James.” Is all I can get out before I burst into tears.
“Oh God. Sorry Lord. I mean that’s awful Damon. What on Earth happened?”
I barely get the words out. I tell him about Frank’s accident. I manage to make an appointment to see him this afternoon in Mobile. I get off the phone as quickly as possible, and promptly burst into tears again.
I call the sheriff’s department in Jackson. I am transferred numerous times before finally reaching someone who can help me. I become more and more frustrated with each transfer. By the time I reach the correct person, I yell at her. She is very gracious. I am not the first distraught relative she’s dealt with. She tells me Frank’s body (I cannot get used to that terminology to describe him) will not be released today, and maybe not tomorrow. An autopsy is required. The other driver was over the limit. All I could picture is some clinical soulless pathologist hacking up Frank. A huge sense of anger nearly overwhelms me, thinking of a drunk asshole driving home from a bar. Selfish prick.
Clayton calls back, barely an hour after we’d last talked. He and Trudy will fly in tonight. I am glad. I can’t handle the thought of being alone. I also can’t handle entertaining, but Clayton and Trudy are the closest to family I have left, I love them both, and I know they will be a source of solace, even if the three of us are silent.
I head over to Mobile, pulling over to the side of the road multiple times, when tears well up or spill down my cheeks. When I eventually get there, I am comforted by the little ice-cream shop’s presence. Some things don’t change. I walk around the back to where the priest’s office is. Fr. James has the door open. It is a perfect spring day. It seems like an insult to Frank’s memory. How dare the sun shine today. Fr. James asks me to sit. We sit at either end of a three seater couch. My face is still tear-stained, and my eyes bloodshot. Fr. James looks very serious. So serious it makes me burst out laughing. I catch myself and smiled. A weak smile. Fr. James returns it in kind.
“Damon. I’ve known you and Frank since you were babies. I helped your father after your mother died. I care dearly about all of you. I am here for you. I know you and Frank no longer practice. I’m not sure if you’re a believer or not, but I’m here. Okay?”
I am actually very touched. We used to joke what a nerd Fr. James was. I guess most priests are when you’re kids. It seems like he is being genuine.
“Thanks Fr. James. That means a lot. I know it would have to Frank too. And to Pop.” I tell him. “Could we discuss the arrangements please? I’m finding it hard to keep it together.”
“Of course. What day and time were you thinking of? It’s Friday tomorrow, so if we don’t do the removal tomorrow, and the funeral on Saturday, we’ll have to wait until Monday and Tuesday.”
I cry again. Fr. James waits to let me finish. He doesn’t try to console me, or act embarrassed, just gives me the space I need. I really appreciate that.
“His body hasn’t been released yet,” I say, choking on my tears. “Monday and Tuesday suit best I suppose.”
“Good. Good. Ten, eleven? Do you think you’ll bring your father?” he asks.
“Eleven I suppose. People will be coming from Jackson, Biloxi, and wherever all Frank’s friends are.” I answer. “I’m not sure about Pop. I suppose it’s my decision.” He doesn’t really know who we are, sorry Frank was, most of the time. I haven’t told him, and I don’t think I will.”
“That makes sense I suppose. No point in upsetting him over and over.” Fr. James says.
“I’m going to see him tomorrow. I’ll see how that goes. Is there anything else I have to arrange with you?” I ask.
“Well yes. You need to decide who will do the readings and the psalm. Have you any ideas? Would you like to give a eulogy? ”
“I’ll do a eulogy, and I’m sure my Aunt and Uncle will do a couple readings. I’ll find someone do the psalm. Other than that?” I answer and ask.
“Have you thought about who the pallbearers will be?” he asks.
I completely forgot about that, and am distracted by the thoughts of who it should be. I tell Fr. James that I am working on it, and ask him if anything else needs to be figured out.
“The funeral home will figure out the rest. The flowers and all that. Once they know where and when, they’ll contact me, to organize the removal of the body to the church.” he reassures me.
I thank him, leave quickly, and head outside. I stand outside staring at the ice-cream shop. It feels strange being in St. Michael’s and not going for ice-cream. Is there a rule that says you can’t eat ice-cream when your brother has just died? It seems like there should be. I decide to go in anyway. I walk in, a bell signaling my entrance. It could well be the same bell that announced our entrance all those years ago. Mr. Patts is behind the counter, just as he was all that time ago. I realize he was probably the age I am now back when we used to come in. Frank and I thought he was ancient of course. I ask him for my old reliable: one scoop of cherry and one scoop of chocolate. Everyone thought I was weird when I ordered it. I didn’t care. He gives me a sideways glance.
“I may not be great with faces, but I never forget people’s ice-cream choices. Damon Ryan. It is you? How on Earth are you?” he asks.
I smile an unconvincing smile, which he doesn’t seem to notice. “Not too bad Mr. Patts. Not too bad.” I answer.
He doesn’t ask about Frank or Pop, and I don’t offer up any information. We chat about old times, and how things on the street have changed. He is one of the last remnants of more innocent times. Modernity has come to Mobile, and Grant Street has not escaped it. It dawns on me that Mr. Patts will see the removal on Monday. He might see me, so I figure I should just tell him now. He is very sympathetic, and I manage to hold it together. I suppose it gets easier the number of times you have to tell people that your brother is dead. I manage not to cry the entire time I am there. It is the longest I’ve gone without crying all day.
I leave and head back to Denville. I want to pick some things up to have in the house for Aunt Trudy and Uncle Clayton. It feels such an inconsequential thing to do, but necessary. Life truly goes on, even when a loved one dies. I decide to shop one town closer to Mobile than Denville. I don’t think I can handle talking to anyone I know, and I know almost everyone in Denville.
My aunt and uncle arrive a little after eight in the evening. Trudy looks about as good as I had earlier. Her mascara obviously makes it worse for her. We hug for several minutes when she comes in, neither of us needing to say a word. Clayton gives me a handshake and a brief hug, offering his condolences. My usual weak smile, is my response. I take their bags and drop them upstairs. They always stay in pop’s old room now, since he went into the home a few years ago. When I come downstairs, Trudy has already put on the kettle for tea. She is third generation Irish, but still hangs onto her cup of tea for anything and everything that ails you, including death. They are in the sitting room, beside each other on the couch, Trudy with her hand on Clayton’s knee, and Clayton’s hand on top of Trudy’s. I take the chair opposite them. We don’t speak much. It doesn’t matter. There are never awkward silences between us. It doesn’t seem like there is much to say. Frank is dead and none of us can change that.
Finally Clayton pipes up, “Do you need help with the arrangements, Damon?”
“Well I’ve sorted out the church. It’s the one we went to as kids. You remember it, right aunt Trudy?”
“I do Damon.” is all she manages.
“We’ll have the removal on Monday evening at five, and the funeral on Tuesday at eleven.” I tell them. “I’d love either or both of you to help with the rest of it. I have to go to the Funeral Home tomorrow.”
“We’d love to help, Damon.” Clayton replies.
“Clayton, I’d like it, and so would Frank, if you would be one of the pallbearers. If you don’t want to, or feel like you can’t, just say the word.” I ask.
“Of course I will, Damon. Of course.” he says barely above a whisper.
Aunt Trudy stays silent, but gives a weak smile that reminds me of mine. We barely talk for the rest of the evening. I make Trudy and Clayton cups upon cups of tea. Clayton has been indoctrinated into the Irish tea tradition, and become a convert. I usually follow suit when Aunt Trudy is around. At a little after eleven they excuse themselves and head up to Pop’s room. I feel sorrowful. Not just because of Frank’s death, but because of what it is doing to those of us left behind. I wonder if I will ever feel normal again. Indeed I can hardly remember what normal feels like, even though normal was yesterday. I head upstairs myself. I still sleep in mine and Frank’s old room, as I always do when I visit. It is both reassuring and upsetting to be here. There are so many memories of him and both of us together. He has pennants from little league baseball games, trophies from High School wrestling, posters of various rock bands from the 80s, and a huge poster of Demi Moore, who he worshiped. I laugh each time I come into the room. Whenever we were here together we still slept in the same room. Pop’s place is a small two-bedroom. Frank and I used to talk into the small hours, talking about our childhood, and remembering all of our crazy obsessions. We never tired of it.
The next morning, Aunt Trudy seems like a new person. She says she had a good night’s sleep, and feels more productive today. Clayton and I give each other a knowing look, which she catches.
“I know what you boys are thinking, and no, I’m not in denial.” she says, “I’m just being practical. Of course I’m still upset about Frank, but we have to deal with it. I’ll cry when I want to, and I don’t need you two to tell me otherwise. I’m a big girl.”
Clayton and I both hold up our hands and smile, which is returned by Trudy. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say all three of us giggle a bit. I don’t feel guilty. I am genuinely amused at something, and I give my permission to feel it. God knows this is going to be a very rough few days, followed by a long time of mourning. I suggest that I call the funeral home after breakfast, and arrange a time for them to head to Gulfport. It’s the nearest town to where the crash took place. Frank had been taken to hospital there, and was dead on arrival. Such a bland phrase, with such a devastating meaning. The funeral home is open. It will take less than an hour to get there, so we decide on eleven. It is just after nine o’clock. On the drive we listen to music so we don’t have to talk. I am lost in my thoughts of Frank, and I can tell the other two are as well. One person’s death can affect so many people.
At the funeral home we are met by a lady who seems entirely too young to be a funeral director. She looks severe in her neatly pressed business suit, and a tight lipped but neutral face. She hands us each a business card and then smiles, which lights up her face. Ms. Stanley – Funeral Director – Casey’s Funeral Home. She is very soft-spoken and puts us at ease, a completely different personality than her appearance indicates. She shows us all the caskets, a book of flower options, and the various types of hearses and funeral cars. These things seem so irrelevant. Aunt Trudy is the only one to have any sort of opinion, so Clayton and I let her take the lead, nodding when she wants positive feedback. Next came the finances. Death is an expensive business apparently. We can put down a deposit, and if we want pay the remainder on a payment plan we can work that out with Ms. Stanley. It feels like we are buying a car. We agree Trudy and Clayton will pay half and I will pay the other half. Once Frank’s will comes through, if either of us inherit a decent amount of money, we will pay the other back.
The three of us visit Pop on Friday. He is sitting up in the solitary chair in his room. He is still as skinny as he has been his whole life, maybe more so. He smells like ‘old’. I just can’t get used to that. I hate what life is taking from him. He is in his late-sixties, but judging by his looks, he could be eighty. Clayton and Trudy sit on the bed, and I lean against the floor to ceiling window, looking out now and again. It is another beautiful day, and I wonder if Pop can appreciate it.
“Hi Pop. It’s good to see you.” I start.
“Russ. Is that you Russ?” he asks.
This often happens. Russ is his brother, and I have been told my whole life that I look like him. I can’t see the similarity, and nor can Russ, but everyone else can. Russ lives in New York. We aren’t particularly close, but he comes home once a year, and makes sure he sees Pop, Frank and me. I realize I haven’t called him yet. Another thing to go on the list.
“Pop. It’s me Damon. I’m your son.” I say somewhat hopefully.
“Damon. Damon. Who’s Damon, Russ?” he asks.
This is how it often goes. It is very hard. After every visit, I am upset for days, and swear I will visit less often. I don’t answer him.
“Frank’s dead. We’ve got to go.” I blurt out. It comes from nowhere. Out of anger and frustration. I leave the room. I collapse down on my hunkers, and burst out crying, head in my hands. I can’t help it. It just keeps pouring out. Clayton comes out of the room and walks over to me. He gets down to my level and puts his arm around me. He doesn’t say one word. Doesn’t try to comfort me with cliche sayings. He just is with me. It is such a relief. Being able to cry, without judgement, but with understanding. I cry all out for several minutes, until my sobbing slows down to intermittent hiccups, and then stops. I half smile, half laugh at Clayton, and he smiles back.
“Well I guess he knows.” I add guiltily.
“No Damon. He has no clue.” Clayton answers.
Trudy comes out and the three of us agree there is no point in bringing him to the funeral, or indeed trying to get him to understand that his son is dead.
When we get back to the house, I start calling around Frank’s closest friends to line up the remaining four pallbearers. Of course Clayton and I will be at the front.
I call Frank’s best friend from undergrad, two best friends from med. school, and his closest colleague. Thankfully they all agree to be pallbearers. I cannot bare the thought of having to call around, begging someone to fill in.
On Saturday the Sheriff’s Department calls. They tell us the autopsy showed that Frank’s death was instantaneous. He died from head injuries sustained when his head hit the steering wheel. He had no alcohol or illicit drugs in his system. The forensic investigation showed that the other driver had a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.47. He was almost six times the legal limit. The only injury he has is a fractured wrist. I am enraged. That piece of crap is alive, and my brother is dead. How does that make any sense? A fractured wrist. It is farcical. He’s probably out drinking with his buddies again. The officer on the phone assures me he is still in custody. Little comfort when I am three days away from burying my little brother.
The next couple days both drag and fly by. Each passing day, is one more day since Frank died. I hate that. At the same time the days of bitter sadness, and staring into space seem to be interminable. There are a few phone calls from the funeral home, and from Fr. James, to finalize any last details. I have already contacted any of Frank’s friends whose numbers I have. Most of the local ones said they will attend. He had a lot of friends from undergrad. and med. school. I am only able to contact a few of them, but they assure me they will pass the message along. Everyone is shocked and saddened of course. Frank had a great personality, was helpful to everyone, a well-liked guy as the saying goes. I go onto Facebook, which I rarely do, and post on his wall. It seems like a necessary but callous thing to do. Who expects to find out about the death of someone they care about on social media? I figure I have to, in order to reach anyone left out of the phone call chain.
Monday finally comes. We head for Gulfport early. We end up deciding to drive to Mobile, and leave the car there. We take the train to Gulfport. The funeral car will drive us to Mobile, where Frank will be buried in the cemetery behind the church. We arrive at the funeral home an hour early, and head across the street for a coffee. More time dragging out in front of us, even if it is only an hour. When we go over to the funeral home, we are met my Ms. Stanley. She is very welcoming, and sensitive to our grief. She brings us in to see my brother before they close the casket. I stand at the door for several minutes before plucking up the courage to look. I step gingery towards the casket. I see Frank’s form, before I see the details. Ms. Stanley had warned us over the phone that Frank’s head injuries were ‘pronounced’, and there would only be so much they could do. I am downright scared. I am afraid to look regardless of the fact he was my brother. Of course, I know I will crumble once I see my brother, dead, in a box. It seems so ludicrous yet real. I eventually look inside the casket, and at Frank’s face. I can see they did as good a job as they could, but I can still see the indent in his skull. I morbidly wonder what it would look like if his head had caved in, and his brain had been visible. His genius brain. I then feel terrible for having such a thought. His forehead looks so unnatural. I can’t imagine a human having a head that looked like that, walking around. I guess that’s why he died. Somehow I manage not to sob. I don’t even have to try really. Trudy on the other hand is inconsolable. She leans over Frank’s body, and onto his chest. She quietly whispers to him.
“Oh Frank. I’m so sorry. Frank. Oh God. I love you. I love you.” She weeps openly, as Clayton puts his hand on her back, and gently rubs it. I stand back and take the scene in. What would Frank think of it all? Would the doctor in him kick in? It had been years since med. school. He hadn’t dealt with blood, guts, or death since then. How would he feel if I was the one in the coffin, and he was looking on? It really doesn’t matter. He is dead. I wonder if he is looking down on us. I’ve never been what you would call a believer. Well not since 6th or 7th grade. The death of someone close can make you think. I suppose it gives some hope, that the loved one has not simply blinked out of existence completely. Either way, Frank has disappeared from my existence.
Trudy recovers enough to be led out of the room by Clayton. I go over to the casket, and look at Frank one last time. I am alone with him now. Seeing his body is devastating.
“Hey Larva Lips.” I say, remembering my rather cruel alias for my brother. He did have big lips. He called me ‘Bozo’ in return, because of my big feet. Names we still call each other on occasion, mostly when drunk. No. Not still. Past tense now.
“What did you get yourself into this time? You had to show off. Always first for everything, including death.” I’m not sure if I am being inappropriate or not. It doesn’t really matter. I think Frank would have had a laugh.
“You know I’m gonna miss you big time. What the heck am I gonna do? Eat Thanksgiving dinner on my own? Ma gone, now you. Pop’s as good as dead. You know he doesn’t remember either of us. I don’t know whether to keep visiting him or not. Does that make me a terrible son? I wish I could talk to you about it. But no. You upped and died, didn’t you?” I talk at him.
I half expect him to respond. I walk away. This is the hardest thing I have ever done. There is no way to prepare for this. I have somewhat prepared for Pop’s death, in so far as I can. No one is supposed to have to bury their little brother. It is wrong. I feel wrong. For me. For him. How is this okay? It is not okay. I walk outside. Trudy and Clayton are already in the funeral car. Clayton’s arm is around her shoulder. Her head is dipped. She is still crying, quieter now. I slide in across from them. It’s been years since I have been in a limo. Under other circumstances, I would probably be like a giddy child. Under these, I just don’t care.
We start off for Mobile. It could take an hour and a half. Google says the traffic is light. We don’t want to be late for Frank’s body. A silly thought comes to my mind. ‘Ve have the body’ I say in my head, à la Dracula. No one can start the removal without us. Maybe we’ll decide to go for a bite to eat on the way. We could leave Frank outside. I’m pretty sure it would be a health code violation to have a dead man join us for lunch. I laugh, mostly to myself. Clayton and Trudy look up. I immediately start crying. This isn’t funny. It is real. I can barely breathe. I suddenly realize that I don’t know exactly where Frank died. Did he die on the road between Gulfport and Mobile? Did we pass the spot already, on the way out of Gulfport? The thought is unconscionable that I could have driven passed the spot without me feeling something. Of course I know it is just another piece of road. I know that’s not true for me. I chastise myself for not asking the Sheriff’s Department exactly where Frank died. He could have died anywhere near Gulfport. I make a mental note to call the Sheriff’s Department again tonight.
When we arrive at St. Michael’s we step out of the car. We have twenty minutes to spare, and I’m glad we left the extra time. Clayton, Frank’s four closest friends and I bring his casket into the church. Trudy walks alongside us, not wanting to go in on her own. It feels surreal. Frank is inside this box, inches from my face. It disgusts me, and marvels me at the same time. Walking into the church is difficult. Each step, one step closer to taking the next official step in the last steps of Frank’s life. Frank’s death. The church is about half full. He had a lot of friends, patients, colleagues. It seems like everyone loved him. I consciously refuse to make eye-contact with anyone. I fear I will start crying and not be able to stop. I am thankful when the six of us reach the top of the church, place his casket on the cart, and I sit in the first pew. It is a relief to have our backs to the other mourners. It is five minutes shy of five in the evening. I hear shuffling of feet and people sitting in pews nearer to the back of the church. I finally turn around, and see the church is almost full. I am brought back to the front with the sight of everyone standing. The priest has come to the altar.
The removal goes by in a blur, for which I’m thankful, but as we go out to the car many of Frank’s friends want to talk to me. I can barely stay composed. I wish this would all be over. I nod over and over, and say thank you for what seems like an forever. Finally the trickle of people has stops. Trudy and Clayton and I head home. We are all silent in the car. Clayton offers to drive, as he can see how upset I am. When we reach home, I just want to go and lie down. I know I would fall asleep eventually, like a kid falls asleep after crying forever. I don’t want to screw up my body clock, when I have to deal with the funeral tomorrow. It seems so strange to me that I can have that level of logical thinking, but hardly be able to concentrate on anything else. On goes the kettle, out come the cups, and a big pot of tea is made. This is serious grieving business. We all get an early night. We are exhausted from the events of the day. Earlier I was worried I would fall asleep too easily, but of course I am left now staring at the ceiling. I watch the shadows on the ceiling change as the night goes on, the moon’s position changing. I can’t stop thoughts from speeding through my head. Different ones, the same ones, altered ones, over and over. Frank is stuck in my mind. I cry on and off during the night. Sometimes lightly, sometimes full-on snot-filled buckets of tears unleashing themselves without any say-so from me. When morning finally arrives, I believe I can’t have had more than two hours sleep in total. I feel awful after last night. Trudy and Clayton are at the table already. There’s a pot of tea, and a plate of toast in front of them. From the look of them, they didn’t have a good night’s sleep either.
“Damon, son. You look terrible. Sit down.” Clayton offers.
“Yeah. Couldn’t sleep.” I respond.
“You’re not the only one.” Trudy says as she pats my arm.
We know this is going to be a tough day for all of us. It is only seven in the morning. I have no idea why we’re all out of bed. I guess if you can’t sleep, there’s no point being in being in bed. We talk about nothing of import: the weather; Clayton’s pickup truck and whether they should sell it; and Damon’s work. We all avoid the subject that is thick in the air. There is no point. It will be in the forefront ofour minds the minute we leave for the mass. I am dressed in sweats and a t-shirt. I don’t feel like getting dressed in my suit just yet. It is another reminder. Also, knowing me I would spill something obnoxious on it, and be left with nothing to wear. Trudy and Clayton took the same route. They’re still in their pajamas. I ask them if they’d like eggs, more to make conversation, than any desire to eat them. They both say yes, I presume for similar reasons. Once we are all finished, I offer to do the dishes. I demand that I do the dishes. Another thing to keep me busy. It is nearly eight o’clock. There are still three hours until the funeral. We will leave thirty minutes earlier. I worry I will end up counting every single one of the hundred and fifty minutes left before we leave. I rack my brains trying to think how I can pass the time. What does one do when waiting for one’s little brother’s funeral to occur? I decide to look at old pictures. I know it’s probably the worst thing I can do, but the urge is overwhelming. I pull out the four albums Pop made over the forty years since he and ma got married. The first picture is their wedding day. The last is a slightly blurry picture of the three of us together on the dock. It was taken by one of Pop’s friends, who had visited after Pop told him of his diagnosis. Pop had already started having memory issues. I virtually know these albums by heart, but I look at every photo on every page, slowly and methodically, absorbing every detail. There is a gap of several months after Frank’s birth, Ma’s death. Frank and I are in almost every photograph. Some are relatively boring, but a lot are hilarious, catching either or both of us acting like our goofball selves. I find myself alternating between laughing and crying. Every picture of Frank brings with it a cascade of memories.
At ten o’clock I head upstairs. Trudy and Clayton are still in their room. I can hear them quietly talking. I want to be busy until we leave the house. I purposefully leave it until the last minute to get ready. I get into the shower and turn it on a little hotter than is comfortable. Anything to keep my mind away from what I’m getting ready for. It works. As the water flows over my head, body, and legs, I manage to smile. I am taken out of myself, and think of nothing. Pure emptiness. When I turn off the shower, and everything rushes back in, I am thankful for the small window of time when I was free from any notion. I walk to my bedroom in my towel, letting it drop to the floor. I look at myself naked in the mirror. I have the usual late-thirties paunch, that I could get rid of if I worked out more. I look down at my left leg, as I often do. I have a nine inch scar from when Frank and I stole Pop’s hunting knife. We were paring sticks when I said something to make Frank mad. He lashed out automatically to hit me in the leg, forgetting the knife was in his hand. He sliced the thigh of my leg open, and blood started pumping out of me. I thought I was dying, and ran screaming to Pop. He threw both of us in his truck, and sped into town where there was a part time doctor’s office. Once I was stitched up, he’d picked up an antibiotic for me, and he’d gotten us home, we both got our punishment. Ten lashes each, to the butt with his belt. It stung more than the knife wound. At least it had been numbed. I remember Frank and I limping around the house for days, me because of both crime and punishment, Frank from just the latter. I laugh at the memory now, before getting dressed in a dreary black suit, a white shirt, and a black tie. The quintessential funeral garb. I call out to Trudy and Clayton to let them know I’ll wait downstairs. They answer from the living room, so I head down to meet them. We acknowledge each other’s attire with nods. We wait for the funeral car to arrive, Clayton and Trudy on the couch, and me at the window. Once it arrives I let them know.
“It’s time.” I say dramatically.
The mindless statement comes out of my mouth before I know it. It sounds like a line from a trashy movie. I open the front door and let them out ahead of me. Clayton returns the favor at the car. We unwittingly sit in the same seats as yesterday. We manage to sit in silence the whole way to Mobile. I look out the window, and watch life go by. People doing normal Tuesday things. Me doing the hardest thing I have ever done.
When we arrive at the church, the three of us head down the aisle together. I see the casket, and inhale sharply. How could I forget my dead brother would be in a box in front of me? Some tears form, but I’m able to shut them down. I have cried enough these past few days to last a lifetime. No more. We slide into the pew, with me at the end. Nearest the aisle. Nearest Frank. Fr. James comes out onto the altar and smiles at me. He starts talking, but all I hear is him mumbling. I cannot concentrate on his words. I feel like I’m in an alternate universe. In mine, Frank is alive, and I’m not sitting here in St. Michael’s. Maybe Frank and I are fishing. We’re on our dock. We’re reminiscing about our childhood. He is not in a box, in the aisle, of the church whose hard pews his friends and I are sitting in. It is a ludicrous idea that this is real. If I block out the words, I can pretend for a little while. Not enough to believe it, but enough to feel the crushing weight ease a little. It is time for the readings. I only know because Clayton and Trudy stand up, squeeze past me, and walk to the altar. I try to listen, out of respect to the closest relatives I now have. It is still impossible. I zone in and out. Towards the end of the service, it is my turn to give Frank’s eulogy. I spent hours writing and rewriting this over the last few days. I know I didn’t do him justice. I was never an English scholar. I did my best, and I know that’s all I could give him. I slide out of the pew, and nearly trip up over the kneeler. I’m not watching where I’m going. My eyes are already full of tears, but I’m not crying. I know that will change once I start reading. I arrive at the lectern, unfold the worn piece of paper, and place it down. I look up at my audience. Immediately the tears fall, but silently. I clear my throat.
“Frank William Ryan was my little brother. He was born on July 29th, 1981. He was eleven months younger than me. I loved the fact that I was the big brother, but every time I played it up, he would remind my that for one month every year, he and I were the same age.” I smile.
“Frank and I grew up without a mother. It was often obvious. He and I were rough and tough, but Frank always had a tender side. That worked well a few years later with the ladies.” This produced laughs.
“Our Aunt Trudy was a huge influence on him. He loved her dearly. She was the only mother-figure either of us knew. And Uncle Clayton was a steady reliable father-figure, alongside our own. Our Pop was tough but fair. He had to raise two unruly boys on his own. Frank always did well in school: academically; in sports; and socially. He and I were in the same class, and this was where the little brother outdid the older.” I cried quietly for a minute.
“When he got into Duke, he was ecstatic. He showed everyone just how smart he was. I felt like the class dunce compared to him. He never rubbed it in. He knew he was smart, but just took it as a fact like having blue eyes, or being 5′ 11″. I was so proud of him. I wasn’t jealous. I was pretty stoked, that I’d be able to visit him and go out to find girls.” More laughing.
“Once again when he went to John Hopkins with a full ride, he just took it in his stride. Pop was so proud of him. His little Denville boy was going to be a doctor. As those of you who are his close friends or colleagues know, he loved his profession. He talked about it constantly. He loved how the human mind worked, and wanted to solve the problems of the mind’s illnesses. He was so compassionate with his patients. All that said, he never forgot his roots. He frequently came home for visits, and often popped in unexpectedly on a day off.”
I’m pretty sure I’ve lost my audience. I tried my best to write a good eulogy for Frank. Now I feel like a fraud. Someone who loved him should have been able to pull it together. I have a page left to read, but I decide to rap it up.
“I loved Frank. I still love Frank. I know he would be glad to see that all of you showed up to say goodbye. Please join me back at the house after the burial. Thank you.”
I fold the piece of paper, and virtually run from the altar. I can hardly hold the tears back, but manage to until I get back to my seat. Then the flood gates open. Trudy puts her arm around me and pulls me close. I let her, and lean into her and bawl like I used to as a little child with a skinned knee. The rest of the funeral is a blur. As we head out the door, leading the procession, I keep my head right down. I don’t want to see anyone. I cannot believe we still have to get through the burial. How can I do that?
We lead the procession to behind the church where the cemetery is. It is much larger than I remember. I didn’t look at it last week when Fr. James and I talked. He knew where the family plot was. There were records showing where Ma was buried. It’s nice that they will be together. I don’t believe in God, or a hereafter, but I’m still happy. Fr. James comes and joins the three of us at the head of the line. At least he knows where he’s going. The cemetery is actually quite pretty. It’s a perfect spring day, just some clouds in the distance. We’re having a run of beautiful weather. The trees are all in bloom, and there are birds in the sky. It looks like a picture. It’s all a bit too perfect. Except for the nature of the event. We arrive at the graveside. I look at my Ma’s headstone. I haven’t been here since I was a kid. Pop stopped visiting after seven or eight years. He still loved her dearly, still would now if he remembered who she was, he just didn’t feel the need anymore. Looking at her picture was better than looking at a stone. ‘In loving memory of Barbara Mildred Ryan September 6, 1951 – July 29, 1981. Beloved wife of Samuel, mother of Damon and Frank. Taken too soon’. I wondered what it would be like if she were here today. I rarely think of that, but today makes me think of all four people in my family, and that I am the only one still living life. I imagine my mother devastated, but leaning on me for support. She was a beautiful woman, and I imagine her as much older than she was in the photos, but still graceful with a lovely face. Once again, I barely listen to Fr. James. I just want to get it over with. As time goes on, the clouds get nearer, and the cemetery darkens. I hardly notice, but I instinctively pull my suit coat tighter. Eventually a few drops fall from the sky. Fr. James is nearly finished. I will him to hurry up. As the casket is being lowered into the ground, the heavens open. A movie director couldn’t have timed it more perfectly. All the mourners, myself included are soaked to the skin. When everything is over, all the other guests run to their cars. Trudy, Clayton and I stay a minute. I am aware of the gravediggers waiting in the offing to start their work. I don’t want to let him go. In reality I never had him. He is gone. I am here. The tears don’t come this time. A crushing emptiness does. I walk slowing to the funeral car, not caring if Trudy and Clayton are following me. They are, and when we get to the car, and I finally look up, I can see that they too look spent.
I am dreading being back at the house. I hope that everyone is too wet, and decides to go home. When we arrive, I can already see several cars outside. Why couldn’t they just leave me be? I get out of the car, making sure I don’t look at anyone. I open the front door and head straight to the kitchen. The caterers let themselves in with a key I gave them, and there is a buffet set up, with all the china and glassware provided. I am so glad I didn’t have to deal with this part of the day’s events. I hear the first guests ringing the doorbell. Oh God. Why can’t I just go to bed? I walk to the door, and plaster a fake minuscule smile on my face as I open it. The process is repeated over and over for the next twenty to thirty minutes. Everyone is still drenched, and seemingly proud of themselves for coming back to the house, despite this terrible turn of events. I resent them. Is it so hard to honor someone who has died, because it happens to rain? I mingle for a while with Frank’s friends, colleagues and people who just like a good funeral. I think of those last people with scorn. I know they are here, I just don’t know who they are. At one point I leave to use the restroom. When I come out, there is no one in the hallway. I take the opportunity to sneak outside. The rain has stopped, but there are puddles all over the ground. I don’t realize where I’m going until I arrive. There is only one place I could ever have goneI suppose. The place where I feel closest to Frank.
I sit down at the end of the dock, just as I did several days earlier, just as I did so many times in my youth. My behind is instantly wet, but I don’t care. It reminds me of when we would sit in the rain out here, telling each other stories about the mysteries of the lake, what the biggest fish on Earth was, and who would be first to swim to the other side of the lake when we were old enough. I am transported back over and over, to happier times. I reminisce about all the times Frank and I hung out here that I can remember. I laugh and cry, and shout at the world. I don’t care if anyone sees or hears me. I am mad at the world, at everyone, at Frank, at Pop, at Ma, at myself. Why am I the only one left? This house will be mine. I will live in it alone. This is not how it was supposed to be. I strip down to my boxers, casting my funeral clothes aside. I have no use for them now. I dive into the beautiful cool water and swim as fast and hard as I can, until I can swim no more. I have to tread water for several minutes before I start back for the dock. I swim slowly and mindfully on the way there. I reach the dock, and pull myself out, with shoulder muscles I didn’t know I had. I turn and sit facing the water again. Somewhat breathless, a little relieved. I have not washed away the sadness, but some of the anger is gone. I am sad. My little brother is dead. And that is reality.
‘I’m sittin’ here restin’ my bones, And this loneliness won’t leave me alone’ – Otis Reading