His name was Andrew. He was a Welsh smartass. He wasn’t old enough to die. But I should have seen it coming. He was sick. He preferred keeping it to himself. But I could see it in him. Something was draining him of life. His sense of humor. His smile. He wasn’t the man I met years earlier, he couldn’t be.
A death is a brief moratorium on life. When your heart stops, so too does world of those closest to you. But paralysis eventually gives way to the banal. The work of burying a dead loved one is also the work of macabre party-planning.
There is eulogizing the deceased in writing, to be printed in little booklets, the text punctuated by pictures of the person in life. There are the floral arrangements. Use of a building. Catering. Parking. Americans typically spend $10,000 saying goodbye through a social event.
My friend David rode to the funeral reception with me. As usual, we spent the trip passing an iPod back and forth. I chose a song I felt was appropriate for the occasion: Dead Flowers, as covered by the cowboy poet Townes Van Zandt.
Well when you’re sitting there in your silk upholstered chair
Talkin’ to some rich folk that you know
Well I hope you won’t see me in my ragged company
Well, you know I could never be alone
“Did you cry when you found out?” David asked me. “Yes,” I replied, “of course I did.” But I was was lying.
When we arrived it was the typical mix of jovial conversation and dignified sobbing. Our hosts offered wine and cheese. And cupcakes for the kids.
As I filled up my glass, I wondered why I hadn’t cried for Andrew, though I knew him; and I would miss him, and I felt sympathy for the wife and stepdaughter he left behind. I knew all three before they became a family. An entire family of good-natured, sarcastic smartasses. Their dynamic was almost adversarial. They seemed to bond through wit.
This family was destined to break up four short years after its formation. A brief collection of moments in space and time, moments of human bonding and love and humor. Moments that stopped with Andrew’s heart. They would never be that family again.
But I did not cry for Andrew’s loved ones. I was twenty years old. Wrapped up in my musical ambitions. Churning bubblegum hipster punk into a microphone. Obsessed with recording an album. The gathering of grieving friends and relatives proved only another venue for escapism as I chatted about movies and television with those kind souls whose social duty is to jumpstart the process of moving on.
But it has cost me. Now. As I write. As I am forced to confront memories of those good-natured smartasses. As I am forced to contemplate his final, smarmy, Welshy, witty, adversarial goodnight to his wife and stepdaughter, as he climbed the stairs and put himself to bed the evening before they found him unresponsive. Why wouldn’t I cry? Why did I treat this gathering as yet another social event, and not an opportunity to say goodbye?
Perhaps part of me knew Andrew would hate the sobbing. David and I joined a group of mourners honoring him with a round of snappy banter. The bastard would have enjoyed it. Hunter S. Thompson had his ashes fired from a cannon. The mourners of Christopher George Latore Wallace began to dance along to Hypnotize as his casket paraded down the streets of New York. And here we were, gathered in the backyard of a duplex in a suburban Texas neighborhood, trading friendly little insults and snide remarks, drinking wine and eating cheese. It was a social event as wholesome and ironic and awkward as befit the man we mourned. A man who wasted his life working for a religious pamphlet-printing company. A Welshman whose Texan accent was legendary, though I was not one of the privileged few to hear it. A man who believed in a biblical flood, and that humans have been on the Earth for only six-thousand years. A wholly ridiculous human being, as he’d be the first to tell you.
“Humans can’t live in the present, like animals do”, Van Zandt once said. “Humans are always thinking about the future or the past… I don’t know anything that’s going to benefit me now, except love. I just need an overwhelming amount of love. And a nap. Mostly a nap.”
It is only by looking into the past that I can say a proper goodbye. My early twenties were a period where I looked forward, and only forward, at the cost of experiencing the present. It is only after the disappointments, the heartbreak, the pain, the struggle, that I understand how special a thing that family of good-natured, sarcastic smartasses really was. But there are forces in life compelling us ever forward, especially when we’re young. And so we experience death in passing. Another social event. Another little booklet. Another piece of cheese. Another sip of wine. Another day at work in the morning. Another nap. Waiting our turn. Convincing ourselves we have all the time in the world.
I left the reception alone. I drove in silence for a few miles. I remembered I had been listening to music on my iPod, so I turned it on again.
Take me down little Susie, take me down
I know you think you’re the queen of the underground
Send me dead flowers every morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Send me dead flowers to my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave
The best we can do for the dead is remember.