Wrote this about eighteen months ago, odd to reread it now and see how overly stylized it feels. Needs revising, some factual details I want to fix, and a coda to add. Then I’ll likely submit it to somewhere before the end of the year.
It was in mid March of 2007 that I got to hear myself eulogized. It wasn’t my own funeral, but it seemed that everyone who got up to talk that day had something to say about me, even if we had never met.
It wasn’t properly a funeral, by definition a funeral requires a burial or cremation to be taking place and Leslie, my father, was already in the ground. He’d been cremated in late February, placed into a small cask, the cheapest option they’d had, and buried beneath a stone marker with his name, his dates and an image of a steam locomotive upon it.
He’d died sometime in mid-January, but hadn’t been found until mid-February when the mail man noticed the stench leaking out from the mail slot on his front door. No one had noticed his absence during that month, cleaning his house we found only a few messages on the answering machine he still used: bill collectors and the two other people on his dart team.
This explains why I was so surprised that the church was so full of people. The church itself I’d never been to before, it looked more like a restaurant that had gone out of business and been poorly redecorated than a place of worship. Fading floral print wallpaper, chipped linoleum floor, on the far side of the hall was a counter like at a diner, with the church’s small kitchen behind it.
Standing behind the podium, to my left was a picture of my father from around twenty-five years ago, taken the last time we had all pretended to be a family and gone to Sears for holiday portraits. Blown up to be the size of a small poster, the photo looks nothing like how I remember him from the last time I saw him six years before his death.
On my right is an urn full of ashes, not his ashes of course. The urn was found in the kitchen when we were setting up and I think it was my sister who put it on stage so we could pretend that he was present. She thinks it is someone’s dead relative, but I am pretty sure I saw cigarette butts inside so I suspect it is just a rather macabre ash tray.
Behind me two big bunches of plastic flowers are framing the rather stern looking guy made of wood who is nailed to the two-by-fours mounted on the wall. At a distance he looks to be wearing a crown of laurel, but up close you can see that it’s just a cheap plastic Christmas garland atop his head.
And standing at the podium, in a three-piece suit, I am starting to sweat beneath my collar. Not because I am nervous about giving a speech, or because I don’t know what to say, or because there are too many people in this room and no one can get the AC to turn on, but because I am just uncomfortable being in a church, even one as tawdry and low-rent as this one. I’ve always had this sensation when going into a church that makes me pause when crossing the threshold, wait a breath or two and see if this is going to be the time that I get smote from on high with lightning or some other form of righteous fury.
But I can’t delay the speech any longer, the audience has finally quieted down and I can no longer pretend that I was waiting for them to do so. The crowd is made up of my sister, my mother, my father’s co-workers, his ex-girlfriends, the two members of his pub dart team, his three brothers sitting side-by-side all bald from 5’10” and up, and one of his two sisters. The other sister decided to take a sudden vacation to beautiful exotic southern Idaho instead of being here today. I dislike Idaho and yet still envy her that trip.
But I can’t delay the speech any longer so I begin at last. I don’t actually know what I am saying, I am giving the speech on auto-pilot as I steal bits and pieces from memories of past funerals and things other people have said. I am thirty years old and I’ve been to almost as many funerals and I’ve come to realize that pretty much all the speeches are the same: We are gathered here today to remember – loving father – wonderful sibling – survived by – he leaves behind – will be remembered – blah blah. The only original bit is my ending: “… and while we hadn’t spoken for years before he died, he was still my father, and I am still his son and I will miss him.”
So my speech ends strong because, as they say in politics and propaganda, “The great masses will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.” Anyone who knew the relationship between my father and I should realize how big a lie my speech was but today is a funeral and if there is one thing I have learned about funerals it is that they are about selective memory. Everyone is gathered here today not to remember my father as he was, but how they wish he could have been. Still I wait a moment to see if anyone is going to call me a liar and if God is going to smite me today then I have just given him ample reason to do so.
I take my seat again and sniffle a couple of times. Not due to any outpouring of emotions, or impending tears, but because of all the dust that was surrounding the podium. The plastic plants had been covered in dust and I’ve fought back a sneeze for the last fifteen minutes. Since sneezing into the quiet would ruin the solemn mood, I try to hold it back by sniffling a little. It must have been an inadvertent bit of good acting as the stranger sitting behind me hands me a tissue and whispers a comment about it being okay to cry.
The first person to follow me at the podium is Cindy, the first girlfriend my father had after my parents separated. I’d never liked her. I remember the time when she decided to get a pair of pet kittens, got bored of them within a couple of days, brought them to my dad and suggested they raise them together, and then forgot all about them and never asked after them again. Which was just as well, my father managed to kill them both within a month.
I only half pay attention to what she is saying, I don’t really need to listen as she talks about how long she’d known my father and how they’d met at work. Until she says something I do pay attention to: “… and seeing Aaron stand up there today reminded me so much of his father, that same easy way of talking and the same sort of mischievous grin on his face. I can only imagine that Les looked a bit like him at his age.”
That’s enough to make me cringe, comparisons to my father are about the last thing I ever want to hear. But I smile, or grin, or grimace as I am sitting in the front row of the pews and everyone seated behind me will see if I flinch. But she’s not done, she keeps talking and retells one of my father’s favorite anecdotes of me as a child: the time we were getting groceries and I held up length of sausage and shouted across the store at him, “Is this bigger than a horse’s cock?” Which made sense if you had known my father as he used that phrase often enough that by the time I started school I was half-convinced that “horse’s cock” was some actual formal unit of measurement, like a peck or a bushel. But Les had never explained that part of the story when he told it, and Cindy doesn’t do so either today as the anecdote for her is about my embarrassing my father in public.
Finally she is done and sits down amid the sound of the people seated behind me laughing and the next person to come to the podium is a complete stranger. I listen, half-curious and half-wanting to be anywhere else, as he introduces himself as one of my father’s co-workers and talks about how my father always had a joke to tell and then starts to tell another story that I recognize. He, a complete stranger I have never met before today, tells the story of a different trip to the grocery store with my father, the time when we were in the check-out lane and the pager on the belt of the rather large lady in front of us started beeping and I screamed aloud, “Look out dad, she’s backing up!” as if she was some large vehicle warning us of her intent to take a step backwards. He flubs the end a little, but no one but me seems to notice as everyone starts laughing again as he takes his seat.
If once was an exception, then twice seems to set the rule as everyone who follows at the podium takes a moment to speak of how they met my father, and then tells their favorite story of how awful I was as a child. People getting up one after another, most of whom I don’t know, all telling stories of the more embarrassing moments from my youth with just the briefest mentions of the person who they are supposed to be eulogizing. Until finally one of his dart team buddies takes the podium, with a stack of note cards and a speech prepared about my father, the times they spent at the bar drinking, the competitions they went to, how Les was a great dart player and a good friend drunk or sober. I am not too surprised; at least about my father who had been diabetic for a decade, and suffering from liver disease, still going out several nights a week to drink himself into a stupor.
There is a pause after he is done, he has interrupted the flow by doing what is expected at a funeral and actually eulogizing the dead guy. Then, as the seconds stretch, my uncle Mark gets up to take the podium. My uncle talks for a while about my father as a kid, about him as a brother, and just as I think the stories about me are done he ends with the tale of the Christmas my father took his presents with him to his family’s big holiday gathering and discovered that the present from me contained a pair of sheep-skin slippers, a wool sweater, and an inflatable sheep sex-toy. Most of the hilarity comes from Mark’s depiction of my father having to explain to my grandmother how no the sheep wasn’t a pool float, yes it was inflatable but it was a toy for inside the house.
For a moment I want to get up and take a turn again at the podium, tell the tale of how my father was found naked in bed, alongside a stack of porn, a jar of vaseline, and that same inflatable sheep half-deflated after a month. But that isn’t what today is about. I have to remind myself that I have won the war my father and I have fought since I was a kid, fought at times with fists or words or finally in the last years with silence. He has died and quit the field and even if I have to sit through this day of parting shots fired on his behalf, it is done and I have out-lived him and won.
The next five hours pass much the same, my sitting there in the front of the church trying not to fidget too much as the pew grows increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, at hour eight of the planned two hour service, there reaches a point where no one seems to have anything left to say as most everyone has taken a turn at the podium, a couple people twice taking turns. I stand now at the podium and speak my lies again, thanking everyone for attending and sharing their stories of my father, and with that it is done and people begin to leave.
Moving among the crowd, shaking the hands of strangers as they leave, I overhear little slips of conversation, “That was a nice speech he gave, Les always made him out to be a pretty awful son.”
Hearing that I think to myself, “Hah, vindicated! Try as he might with all the stories he told of me, with everyone sharing their stories of me, in the end I won!”
But then I hear, “Yeah, he reminds me so much of his father.” and I feel the knife sink into my back again.