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Funerals Aren't Supposed to be Fun
Coming of Age | The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage
Funerals aren’t supposed to be fun, not even a serious dramedy; no matter what kind of family you have. But sometimes you have to play the cards dealt. I want to tell you a story that I’m sure has already been told many times in the afterlife to brighten someone’s eternity.
My father began smoking at 5 years old. I can imagine him sitting at his desk in the classroom with a cigarette in his hand, trying to read Fun with Dick & Jane. See Jane run to Dick. Do you want a drag, Jane? Run with Dick out to the back of the barn.
He lost his battle with cancer while I was visiting him in a Birmingham hospital, so I stayed to help my mom with arrangements. My brother and sister arrived by the next evening like a swarm of FBI agents investigating a stolen tricycle. It took a while to get their questions answered and the pointing fingers put back into their pockets. After the house settled down, my mom asked me to take my dad’s suit to the mortuary for tomorrow’s funeral. My brother jumped up.
“I’m going, too,” he announced.
“Steve, you’re not seeing dad,” I said calmly. “They’re not finished with embalming and you do not want to remember him like that.”
“I’m in the Army,” he snapped. “Do you think I haven’t seen a dead body before?”
He forgot to mention he was a battle-hardened veteran of Alaska, Virginia, and Italy where he processed the paperwork for unfortunate soldiers who died during military service. So, in a Twilight Zone sort of way, he actually knew a lot about the dead.
We pulled into a dark parking lot. The only light that streaked the night came from a single window in the mortuary. It was the office of the manager, a man I had known since grammar school. Russ took over the family business when his father retired a decade before. He looked up and met us at the door.
“Hey, Russ,” I said. “Here is my dad’s suit, and this is my brother, all six foot three of him.”
“I want to see dad,” Steve said.
“Didn’t you tell him?” Russ asked.
“I did, and he won’t listen.”
“Sir, we’re not finished with our work. He’ll be blotchy. I’d prefer…”
“I’m career military,” my brother cut off Russ. “I know what I’m doing.”
Russ looked at me. I shrugged. He led us to a long hallway and pointed toward the fourth room on the left. Walking along the carpet felt like something out of a Hitchcock movie. I imagined the walls were breathing, moving in and out around us.
“I’ll wait here,” I said. “I’ve already seen him.”
“Come in with me; I’ll be quick.”
Steve pulled my arm as he opened the door. The room was a stark white in the harsh light. The body was lying under a sheet on a stainless steel table near several wall spigots that reminded me of high school Bunsen burner outlets. My brother lowered the sheet from dad’s face and balled a bit of the cloth into his fist.
He stood motionless for a long time and then started crying. He leaned on my shoulder. I staggered. My legs shifted, but I couldn’t support us both. I fell; Steve fell on top of me. The sheet parachuted over us. I told my brother to get off me. I wasn’t certain he heard me, so I began shouting for Russ.
He pulled Steve off of me. I replaced the sheet over the body and ordered my brother to the car.
On the way home, I told Steve to not tell anyone he saw dad. He looked like he heard me through sniffles and an occasional moan. But he didn’t understand.
“I saw dad,” he blurted out as soon as he walked through the door. Like a kid with a nickel in the candy store.
“You what?” My sister screamed. “You’re taking me now. Right now!”
“Here are the keys, Diane. You know where the place is as well as I do."
“Oh no,” she said. “You took him, now you’re taking me.”
“Okay, damn it. Get in the car. You want to see him, fine. Let's go!”
I laid rubber for a half block. The tracks are probably still there 30 years later. My only saving grace would be if Russ had gone home for the night. But he was still there. He looked up with a classic double-take. The door opened. We all stood awkwardly for a short time.
“This is my sister. Now she wants to see him,” I said.
“Didn’t you tell her?” Russ asked.
“I did, and she won’t listen.”
“No, because you showed him to my brother and now you’ll show him to me.” Diane said.
Russ looked at me. I shrugged. He led us to the same long hallway and lifted a hand toward the fourth room on the left. Walking along the carpet once more felt like something out of a Hitchcock movie. I again imagined the walls breathing, waiting to pounce on us.
“I’ll wait out here. I’ve already seen him enough,” I said.
“No, you went in with him. Now you’re going in with me, too,” Diane said.
I sighed as she opened the door. We stood in silence next to him for a long time. I wondered how long this was going to take. I just wanted to get home. She stared at him, acting fairly close to human, until she reached under the sheet and grabbed his hand.
That’s when she broke down, crying and stumbling into me. I fell, and she fell on top of me. Then the body fell on top of both of us because my sister had not let go of his hand. The sheet floated down on top of the pile. I was yelling for Russ.
He stood in the door motionless until another screech got him moving. We dragged my still screaming sister out of the way. I helped Russ situate the body back on the table.
“I don’t get paid enough for this,” Russ said. “You don’t have any more siblings, do you?”