The sudden loss of a loved one is a lot like abruptly being unable to breathe. Every moment, of every day, we perform this essential but automated function without ever thinking much about it. It is only when some form of misfortune seizes this ability do we truly understand just how wonderful it feels to draw breath into our lungs. Much in the same way, when a loved one dies unexpectedly we come to understand that we may have loved them deeply, and even wholly, but we did not realize how truly special it was to have them in our lives. We took for granted the gifts of being able to see and talk to them so regularly. Now that access is revoked, we are suffocating in our grief, and we would give almost anything to breathe.
It was this harsh lesson the world thrust upon me at the age of 12 when my father was murdered.
On the morning of the funeral, I had to drag myself out of bed. The entire time I felt broken and fragmented while getting dressed, like pouring shards of a shattered mirror into a suit shaped sack. As my mother, siblings, and I drove to the mortuary the sky was a funeral cliche if there ever was one. It was gray, cold and raining with dark, heavy clouds sluggishly floating above the city like a wounded armada.
Upon arriving my sisters, and second-oldest brother all climbed out of the car to go inside. Perhaps they were each far braver than me that day because as I went to follow, I instead hesitated, then simply remained seated. Suddenly the courage to face the indisputable evidence of this awful truth had fled me. My mother noticed this of course and instead of immediately going into the funeral home with the rest of her children, she walked around the car and sat with me. We did immediately begin speaking. Maybe she was gathering her thoughts on what to say. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult that must have been for her.
“I am not trying to push you.” My mother began gently with some noticeable hesitation that seemed uncharacteristic for her. “But he was,” She paused as if to reconsider her words. “, is your father, Walter. I know you said you do not want to see him this way. That you want to remember him the way he was... before he died. But if you do not come in to say goodbye, you may regret it later for the rest of your life. Just think about it.”
Perhaps a majority of parents and children would have exchanged a hug at the conclusion of such a statement. However, after saying what needed to be said, she climbed out of the car and went inside. We were not a very emotional family that displayed physical signs of affection. However, I never felt less loved in spite of this because she constantly demonstrated how much she loved us through her constant sacrifices that held more power than any words ever could.
I am uncertain as to how long I sat outside alone that day. I only remember I did not want to go in. I did not want to see my strong father, a man I believed could do anything and could survive anything, lying there in death. So, instead, I sat there staring down at my hands for a long time. I thought I would cry. I wanted to cry. But the pain was so intense it felt as if it was somehow inhibiting something deep within me.
The funeral home was on International blvd. A busy area constantly buzzing with activity. The garbled conversations of passing strangers on the sidewalk, and the constant sloshing of tires traveling across the wet asphalt, mixed with the non-rhythmic strumming of the rains falling against the car. But despite it, all my world was just my hands on my lap, that uncomfortable suit, and the gray shadows filling the vehicle.
“How did this happen?” Is a question that haunted my mind again, and again. The world never felt as harsh, and heavy as it did on that day.
Occasionally I found myself unwillingly picturing the way my father must have died. I imagined what his murder must have looked like as the knife went plunging into him. It was a painful and infuriating train of thoughts with no brakes. Each time I allowed myself to think about it for too long a swell of primal, raw emotions howled from the darkest depth of my being and consoled the hurt with visions of potential, bloody revenge.
“How did this happen?” The question repeated itself again as I lifted my eyes from my lap to stare at the building containing my father's remains. I was a child but I also was not completely naive. I knew the answer. His death was as violent as his life. But while I understood he was no saint this knowledge did not reduce the love I felt for him. It did not make the loss hurt less.
It was while staring at the large pair of decorative doors of the funeral home's entrance, that a new question occurred to me unprompted. “Where has he gone?” I firmly understood he was dead. I knew his body was lying inside. But that all felt like only part of an answer to this new, puzzling question. I was raised Baptist so of course, I knew and partially believed the teachings concerning the possible fate of souls in the afterlife.
But at that moment, while invisibly writhing in pain, at the bottom of that emotional impact crater, those teachings did not offer complete solace.
Was my father in Heaven? Hell? The purgatory my catholic neighbors sometimes spoke of? Or what if it was none of these. What if he was simply gone? Or wandering Downtown Oakland as some unfettered ghost? I was painfully desperate to know. I found myself wishing I could see where he had gone for just a second. But from the bottom of my heart, I urgently wanted to believe and hoped that maybe my father was finally with his mother, and brother, both who he loved so much. I briefly wondered, if there were such a place as heaven, would he have to walk there. My father loved walking and wandering from place to place.
I closed my eyes, and for a short while, it was all so easy to picture. I could see him walking with his hands in his pockets, a cigarette in his smiling mouth, and that brown hat he often wore resting on his head. He was walking down a path, surrounded by trees, through hills made gold by the summer, with the warm afternoon sun hanging overhead. My father was happy there. I think I finally began crying for a while.
There was a doubtless morbidity accompanying that sweetness. If even briefly, I found myself thinking that if I could just die at that moment, then maybe I could catch up with him, and we could walk together. It felt so profoundly real. Those hills, trees, fields, path and sun were all just a little ways away.
“Come on, Walter.” My father would call out while patiently waiting along that mythical trail. How I wanted to feel my hand in his as we walked along, while he told me one of the seemingly endless jokes he remembered, or what he thought of a Stephen King book he had recently read. There would be the sun on my shoulders, and him at my side.
The wailing of a passing ambulance yanked me out of my head and away from the Elysian fields I was trying so hard to see. My fantasy was dashed against the rocks of life, stranding me once more in a reality of rain, wet cement, dim shadows, and sadness. I watched the ambulance speeding off towards whatever emergency or hospital it was trying to reach. As I wondered if the person they were responding to was dying, or dead, I truly hated Oakland for instance. I hated all the violence my city had shown me. I hated all the death I had witnessed. And I hated every selfish soul that helped usher in our collective misery.
The anger quickly abated. I was alone with my grief again. I began feeling sharp pangs of guilt about not going inside. It now felt terribly wrong just to sit outside while my father was lying in that building. Somehow, I finally managed to climb out of the car and close the door behind me. But even then I did not immediately begin my approach. I just stood there in the rain staring at that funeral home. I was realizing that more than just my father was being laid to rest. My dreams of having him around, of hearing his thoughts about my own writing, of being able to have him in my life more often, all of it was dead now.
Finally, I did go inside to face the awaiting reality. Low, yellow-orange lights, like the sad imitation of candles, lit the dim place of whites and dark browns. Orchestra music-- something heavy, slow, and sorrowful-- was playing over the speakers. I paused at the entrance leading into the chapel. I even considered turning around and going back outside. Then I opened the last door and entered.
There were not many people at my father's funeral. Perhaps even describing it as an intimate gathering would be an over-exaggeration of numbers. Most of his real friends had all died violently long before him. The only two members of his family that loved him, his older brother, and his mother were also gone. So it was just a few of us. My mother, sisters, brother, a couple of relatives, and a family friend. We all stood there around his white and silver casket. The truth is the casket was not remotely as fancy as it appeared. That was just an illusion. My family could not afford much so the funeral home opted for a sort of casing to make the plain wooden box appear more elegant for the ceremony.
I felt like I was floating on the air made nauseatingly sweet by some sort of incense. I finally stood there before my fallen hero. How utterly broken but peaceful he appeared to me as I looked down upon him with everything from love, to hate, to regret, and so many other things I could scarcely understand.
My father was dressed simply in a nice suit. The funeral home tried to make it appear as if he was only sleeping. But I understood that was as big a lie as the fake casing over his casket. He was dead and gone. As I stared down at him I remembered the last time we were together. He was laughing, joking, and talking. He gave me $5 dollars to go to the arcade but was gone before I returned. My mother relayed that he explained he had to go but would see me later. Later never came. I felt a terrible pain as I realized none of that was going to happen again.
Once more, I thought I would cry but nothing came except a grim epiphany in the form of understanding perhaps life would always be painful. Despite it all, I sincerely hoped my father was somewhere better than the hard life he had experienced. I hoped it was peaceful there. I wanted people who loved him to greet him as he arrived.
I thought about reaching out to touch my father but I dared not. It just felt inappropriate. So, instead, I settled on being able to do nothing more than stand there motionless as he waved one last time, then left down that long road.