The worst part about D’s funeral wasn’t being asked to be a pallbearer or shoveling dirt onto his casket.
Those weren’t great but they pale in comparison to the moment I looked up from the grave and made eye contact with his mother. I can’t describe the look of horror upon her face or tell you what it felt like to be holding the shovel in my hand when our eyes met.
Some people go out for a Sunday drive but we weren’t some people. We were 29 back then, kings of the world and all that we surveyed was part of our realm.
‘D’ was a scientist and a pilot. Some days we would head out to Santa Monica Airport and take his father’s plane out for a spin.
Thousands of miles above the ground we would talk about life and our dreams or just sit quietly and look out at the wild blue yonder the poets speak about.
Fourteen years later the memories are still vivid and it doesn’t take much to bring back some of those moments. Maybe it is because I am a father now and I understand things differently than I once did.
Once I didn’t believe things like this could happen to me or those I cared most about. I didn’t see it as being naïve or arrogant. Terminal illness wasn’t on my radar. I knew people who had died, young people, but they all died from accidents.
Drunk driving, wet weather and dumb luck took them. It hurt but it was different because I knew if they hadn’t been driving or riding they would still be here.
Thomas The Tank Engine Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
The first time my son asked me who ‘D’ was caught me off guard. He was looking at wedding pictures, naming the people in the photo one by one and then he found someone he didn’t recognize.
I looked at the photo and saw ‘D’ smiling back at me. There he was garbed in the traditional monkey suit, two years removed from his first fight with tumor number one and two years removed from the battle with tumor number three.
It was hard to reconcile the two moments. If you would have seen him back then you wouldn’t have had a clue he had ever been sick. He was making plans for the future and petitioning for the return of his license.
We talked about going flying again. He teased me gently about telling my wife about the past, double dates and plane rides.
“His name was ‘D’ and he was a very good friend.
My son smiled and went back to playing with his Thomas the Tank Engine trains.
‘D’ is gone now and my son doesn’t play with Thomas anymore. Time keeps moving.
Three of us are asked to speak about ‘D.’ Technically they call it a eulogy but I hate the term so I think it as a moment to try and share stories that show who he was.
It feels surreal. ‘D’ is lying in a box somewhere behind us. We half expect him to interrupt our talk with one of the practical jokes he was famous for.
Any moment now there will be a loud explosion and when the smoke clears the old man will be standing there laughing and we’ll laugh with him. Story time ends and there is no explosion, no smoke and no ‘D’.
Instead there are tears and grown men are crying on the shoulders of their mothers and wives.
Make Like John Henry
My mother and wife encourage me to let it out and to let go, but that is not how it will go. There is only one thing left to do, one last way to say goodbye and show our love.
Jackets come off, skirts and dresses are adjusted and the shovels are passed between us. This task won’t be left to those who didn’t know or care for him. This is for us.
We got this. The once proud kings of the world have lost this round.
The August heat shows no mercy and sweat pours off of our brows. We don’t care and we keep working. I refuse to stop and won’t let go of the shovel. The work is what is keeping me together, the time to really let go will come later.
Later on I’ll hear that ‘D’s little brother told their mother it was time to go and that we would make sure things were taken care of. When I think about her eyes I remind myself of that and hope in some small way it helped.
Do You Miss Your Friend
Sometimes we forget how observant children can be. A chunk of moments have passed since my son asked about ‘D’ and we have taken Thomas on more than a few adventures.
“Daddy, do you miss your friend?”
I nod my head and say “One day I hope you have a friend as good as ‘D.”
And then I add a silent prayer that he never has to experience his own August day.