“I’ve sat for hours, stressing, trying to find the perfect words that could encapsulate and explain all of the thoughts and feelings swirling in my brain. But nothing seemed right, and maybe that’s the perfect phrase. The perfect way to describe how I feel. But I know that’s not true because nothing’s perfect anymore. Not since-“
I read the words to myself out loud, practicing funny accents and mispronouncing words just to make the whole task less arduous. I’ve written page after page but the words seem stilted and boring, an affront to their intentions and a clear indicator that I’m the wrong guy for the job. But my complaints and misgivings go unheard, lost in the turmoil present in the minds of those who matter. My mother’s a wreck, one brother’s an alcoholic and the other’s a gambling addict, and my only sister’s currently riding the little red rocket of some ass-backwards Republican in a backwater town in Nebraska; in short, I’m the only one who can do this job. I put my pen back to paper.
“Hello. Thank you all for coming, I know that Leon would’ve appreciated it. This is not a funeral ladies and gentlemen; rather, this is a celebration of life, dedicated to remembering and cherishing-”
It all feels wrong. Every word, every syllable, every letter – all of them, out of place, out of sync; akin to a modern translation of a long-lost language which operated entirely on hand signals. The words in front of me are not sad; ipso facto, they don’t mean enough. They read like we’re having a party, like I’m introducing the guest of the evening. But who the hell is here to celebrate? Not I, said the fly, and certainly not anyone in attendance. Don’t get me wrong, someone out there is throwing a rager, the likes of which have been absent since the Y2K scare – but they’re out there, and we’re in here, and our echo chamber is a whole lot louder than theirs, speakers included. I shake my head, put my pen back to paper.
“A rose by any other name -”
“Leon was a wonderful man, devoted husband, loving brother, dedicated father. Words fail to do his legacy justice, truth be told. But I guess that’s why they picked me, right?”
I stop myself – what I’m writing reads like any other funeral speech, and the thought makes me sick. But I keep writing, so there’s something on the paper. I don’t want to proofread what I’ve written – and I can’t bring myself to do so. This won’t be published, won’t leave St. Mary’s Catholic Church. This will be a private broadcast, for a trusted few and I to absorb. But today’s broadcast is on a schedule, one that must be followed. As I finish, there’s a rap at the door, and I know the time has come for me to rejoin the living. And the dead, I guess.
I step out of the confessional and greet my mom with a hug. My mom gives a small smile and puts her hands on either side of my face. She can’t speak, her tears threatening to drown her. I return the smile and take a second to look at what she’s wearing. It’s a simple black piece, one I remember Leon spent hours picking. He must have spent two hours choosing, all while I sat and complained about the process. She’s chosen to match it with an elegant set of pearls, a gift from the alcoholic, picked up last minute at a pawn shop. I nod and we part, my mother finding her place in the front pew and myself moving towards the pulpit at the front of the room.
“Hello everyone. My name is Frank. I’d like to thank all of you for being here today, it means a lot to me and my family. Um… where to begin?” I look at the paper in front of me, picking out choice words, critiquing myself. “Leon was… a wonderful man. He was a devoted husband, a loving brother, a dedicated father. Words fail to do his legacy justice, truth be told. But I guess that’s why they picked me, right?” This elicits a small chuckle from the room.
Everyone is here for the same reason: Leon. But everybody here knew Leon differently, loved him in their own way. Aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, friends, and my mother all wipe away tears, hoping against all odds that these will be the last. I see Leon in every one of them. Every one of them has his smile, or his nose or lips or hair or something – something that proves he’s not dead. I look at the paper in front of me and shrug, crumpling and trashing it, drawing looks from my mom and aunts.
“I’d like to tell you a story. On my eighth birthday, Leon bought me this puke-green little beach cruiser, complete with training wheels that were almost as big as the bike itself. And I remember looking at this cruiser – shiny, brand new, begging me to ride it – and feeling… hate. I hated that cruiser. I hated the color, that god-awful green… I hated the training wheels with their huge, metal saucers as hubcaps, reflecting all that childhood angst and drama that was bubbling beneath the surface… I despised the dinky little bell that sat on the right handlebar. It would make this horrible little dinging sound that reminded me of an elevator in a horror movie. Leon had gone to great lengths to procure this bike for me, and here I was disgusted and appalled by it. The worst part of it all is that Leon could tell I hated it. He could see it in my eyes, or when I tucked the side of my stomach in to avoid brushing by that stupid bell whenever I walked near the bike. The next morning, I went out into the garage to get my bike… and it was missing. Gone. Vanished into thin air without so much as a trace. Despite how much I hated that bike, despite how I felt when I saw my towheaded self-reflected in those hideous silver dollar hubcaps, despite all my whining and crying and my general apathy towards the bike – despite all of that… That was my bike, goddammit,” I smirked, picturing Leon’s signature smile creeping across his face, a result of both my blasphemous curse and my mother’s over-the-top bristling at its use.
“I ran inside, blasting through the house, anger and indignation fueling my every step as I marched towards my parent’s bedroom. Someone would help me get that disgusting bike back, and I knew of all people, it had to be Leon. I stomp into my mom’s room… and Leon’s gone. I knew better than to wake up my mom, so I stormed out into the hallway, and stomped through the house with a mean look on my face, as though the mice in the wall had stolen my bike. I charged into the garage, fuming… and there it was. My bike. Except it wasn’t my bike – what had once been a paltry excuse for a puke green paint job was now a smooth blend of steel grey and orange flames, and the enormous training wheels had been stripped away. Even the bell was gone. It was like I had a brand new bike… and it was all because of Leon. I remember him stepping from behind the door that led to the backyard, his signature smile spreading across his face, crawling up to his eyes, drawing lines in the sand and marking its position. He was beaming, happy as a clam. I took one look at him and I freakin’ lost it. I ran to Leon and grabbed him by the leg and started sobbing. Leon had no clue what to do, so he kind of took a step back and got down on one knee, so he could see eye to eye with me, and he started talking to me in the gruff voice he’d always use it to calm my mom down, whenever one of my brothers lit a fire under her ass or my sister got sent home again or her anxiety flared up. ‘What’s the matter, kid? I fixed it for you, just how you like, with the flames… and the… why are you crying?’ I was a wreck, tears pouring out, and I threw myself into him, and I wrapped him tight, and I kept crying. And all I could do was cry, because I felt so bad. I knew he had to have spent the better part of his sleeping hours working on that bike. I knew how much it must have hurt him to see my reaction, and how that must have spurned him to ‘do better’. And I couldn’t even explain why I was crying, because in his eyes it wouldn’t make sense, because in his eyes, that was all part of the job, and seeing me happy was worth all the work.
“Look… you all knew Leon. Probably better than I did, and he was my damn father. Some of you grew up with him, or fought alongside him – hell, some of you might have fought the guy yourself. I don’t know why I was chosen to do this, or why we’re doing this in the first place. My dad hated shit like this. He never went to a single funeral or ‘celebration of life’ in the entire 23 years I knew him. He wasn’t religious, and he didn’t care what anybody outside of his family thought of him. And maybe that’s what made him… him, ya know? Because despite all his faults, all his misgivings, my father was a good man. He wasn’t perfect, far from it. Not every story is like the one I told. There were a lot of slammed doors and broken plates growing up. But from day one, dad was consistent – in his love, in his faith to the family and his undying devotion to my brothers, my sister, my mother and I, in his actions and words. ‘Do better’, that was his motto. Every day, pushing and grinding, forcing us to ‘do better’.
But time went on, and we all got older, and we moved away and moved on. And we stopped caring. We stopped listening to the words we’d heard all our lives, stopped paying attention to the actions that had become commonplace. My dad said that ‘life isn’t perfect, but if you find the people who make it worth it to get out of bed every morning, you’re about as close to perfect as you can get.’ For a while, we were perfect, but that faded, and our imperfections shone through like diamonds. We stopped being what Leon needed. And for that, I’m sorry. If I could go back, if I could stop you from going out that night, if I could get one more day to cherish you and hear you tell the stories I’ve heard a thousand times and hug you and let you tell me that you’re proud of the man I’ve become and that you’re excited to see what I do in life, if I could do better – if I could have one more chance at that… I would give anything. But I can’t. There’s nothing anyone on this planet can do to change that, either,” My words have long ago become directed at my father, rather than those in attendance. These words aren’t for them. This choked prayer is an offering to a god only I can see. I close my eyes and turn my head up, and as the levee threatens to break and tears threaten to drown me under their crushing weight, I offer my final and most sincere prayer.
“I’m sorry, dad. I’m so goddamned sorry.” It’s these words, above all, I hope Leon hears.