We laid to rest the father of my best friend Kip last Thursday. For me, this is the third such crossing over since the beginning of summer — older men I cherished in different ways. My own father went in early August, and shortly after that my church lost its elder statesmen, actually its elder elder. Now this man Ben, who met my appearance on his doorstep, my appetite at his dinner table, my hand on his refrigerator door as I helped myself to a beer, with the most unreserved welcome. I was Kip’s friend, and in his dad’s mind that might as well have made me a son. He called me “Choo”, was in fact present on some outing of his family’s when Kip first gave me that nickname, they all having turned to see me lagging behind them in some spazzy reverie and Kip having said, “Comin’, Choo?”
Unlike my own dad or Jeff’s dad, Ben was a cut-up, a jokester who lived for the double entendre and reveled in the timely pun. He laughed at everything he could laugh at and cooked a brilliant steak. I was not to knock at the front door of Ben’s house, even though the doors were perfect for knocking. There were large metal rings on both tall wooden halves. Kip’s family expected me to walk in. I usually knocked and then walked in, but I did not wait for them to open. They would have given me an earful for making them get up to answer the door when it was just me.
In the eternity of my memory of the house I knock, walk in, and must immediately wrestle the dog out of my crotch. Then Kip’s mom, who is sitting at her card table next to the fireplace putting the fun bits of a jigsaw puzzle together — the boats, the barn, the mill — glances up through the top of her bifocals and says, “Matthew, get your ass over here and put some of the sky in for me.” Ben is in the kitchen, preparing a meal of red meat and potatoes. “Hey Choo!” he yells upon stepping out from the kitchen to see who has arrived. The household is chaotic, noisy, unjudging, safe. Not all my friends’ houses felt that way. Some were quiet, nearly unpeopled galleries of distant lives. Kip’s family seemed to live in all the rooms at once and fill them all with witty expressions and laughter, sometimes complaint and yelling, too. Life was lived at full volume, and my own noise and witty banter were welcome. After paying the toll of a few pieces of puzzle sky successfully placed, my only other duty was to partake of some meat or drink. It sometimes took twenty minutes before I was free to ascend the narrow attic stair to Kip’s room so we could get down to the serious business of listening to records and playing cribbage.
The old craftsman house in Bellevue was the first of our houses — Kip’s parents’, Jeff’s, mine — to be knocked down and replaced with a sterile New Eastside mansion. After Kip and his siblings flew the nest, Ben and Betsy moved back across the lake to Seattle, whence they’d come. Ben died a few yards from site of the house he’d grown up in, though I believe that house is long gone, too.
Thursday came and I caught a bus from work over to the church in Bellevue, one that Kip and Jeff and I had passed countless times on our way from my house or Jeff’s to Kip’s, or from Kip’s house to my house or Jeff’s. I had only ever been inside it once before, back in the early ’90s, for the funeral of one of our high school friends who was gunned down on the streets of Seattle after intervening to stop a fistfight. I was looking forward to representing the small pack of Kip’s oldest friends who were, excepting myself, unable to attend the memorial service. My own family having just gone through this, I was eager to be a support.
But I had already forgotten how this goes. I was sad to hear of Ben’s passing, of course, and shared the real and immediate grief of my friend as it affected him and his family, but not having seen old Ben in almost a decade I could hardly say I would miss him terribly. For me he was pretty much a happy memory already. So I was expecting to sail through the event without much activity in the lacrimal glands. I would stand there like bedrock for the shaken family I loved, a smiling, composed symbol of Ben’s favor among all who knew him.
But as I say, I had forgotten how it goes. The family were still “in it”, as I and my family had been “in it” in August. They were holding up fine, still pushing themselves through the motions of “the next thing, and the next thing”, as one must do after the passing of a loved one. It all comes so quickly…the arrangements to be made, the people to notify, the attorneys and caterers to instruct, the paperwork to fill out, the photographs to assemble and the eulogies to write. The family had probably not yet had a moment to catch their breath.
I, on the other hand, was removed from all that, and as I settled into the pew of the beautiful old Episcopal church where Ben had brought his young family when they moved to Bellevue, I did not realize what an empty, raw vessel I was, recently scoured out and ready now to be hit with the full force of the loss of a father, even though I would be experiencing it obliquely, from a few feet away, a few pews back. The loveliness of humanity in its grieving process took me utterly by surprise. I had trooped through my own father’s funeral service, even spoken publicly, kept my composure and comforted those who could not, like my dear aunt who cried and cried, and considered it a success because everything got done and got done in the right order, and my father was honored and sung to rest in a way that gave those who knew and loved him closure.
But I had not had a chance to look fully into the abyss, to see ourselves all standing there at the edge singing a man’s favorite hymns, as though to comfort him and not us. I hadn’t yet been able to consider what it means when we gather after a death. It’s a shocking and wonderful thing, this thing we do. An unthinkable crack, horrible and permanent, opens up in our lives, and our loved one is on the other side of it, invisible to us, forever as long as we live. That chasm will never close in our lifetime, but we stand there together and sing into the hole, that inevitable gaping darkness, and we ask God to remember us remembering our flesh and bone. We stand there in our most vulnerable estate, dust living the windblown life of dust, and yet we lift our voices up in gratitude for having shared what now appear to have been just fleeting moments together. We read scripture aloud, words that sometimes confused us and sometimes caused us to argue with each other over their meaning, but that now form a shield between us and the unacceptable fact of death. We sing the raw edge off of our pain.
“Eternal father, strong to save”, we sang. It is a song I love and it was the first song in the liturgy we sang that day. Episcopal liturgy is foreign to me, but the hymns were some I knew and the organist was literally pulling out all the stops, weaving a tapestry of hallowed tones that carried our frail voices — clinging to each other in disarray — into sublime harmony. Mine failed me almost right away. I tried to sing but the breath went out of me as though sucked out by a nearby explosion, the way Christopher Plummer’s voice faltered as he sang ‘Edelweiss’ in The Sound of Music. All I could do was whisper the words. It happened on every song. The hall was filled mostly with elderly folks, including the only two people who shared my pew. I didn’t know any of them and I was grateful to be there by myself, all broken down as I suddenly was. I was grateful that the family was too far in front of me to see my lower lip wiggling, the water at the edges of my eyes.
It was a long moment that went through me like a spear. It was the moment that had been on its way to me since my father, unconscious in his living room three months earlier, surrounded by us his family, gently released his grip and stopped breathing and left us here in this bewildering and beautiful place, a place that suddenly seems more lonely and strange than any conception of death I can believe in.
The quiet thought trickled out of me, “he’s really never coming back.”