Saturday dawned like most other southern summer mornings. Outside on the porch swing, he was cool and comfortable, but he could feel the day already beginning to warm. By afternoon, he knew, the day would be hot and humid. As he sipped his coffee, he looked around for signs of neighbors stirring, but all was quiet. Soon, though, they would be opening their doors, moving slowly across their lawns as they searched for their morning papers. One of these days the paper boy was going to land each and every paper on their front porches just to confuse the whole neighborhood, but today was not to be that day.
He finished his coffee, took one last moment to enjoy the peace and calm of the morning, then went back inside his house. His answering machine blinked frantically, but he continued to ignore it. It had been flashing on and off since the day before, but he had neither the desire nor the strength to deal with anyone quite yet. Instead, he turned the stereo on - the morning quiet giving way to Vivaldi - and began to putter around the house. He worked for several hours, moving from room to room cleaning more and more intensely the longer he scrubbed and washed and scoured.
Suddenly realizing the time, he reluctantly finished up, then moved slowly to the bathroom. Once there, he turned the shower on and undressed, his dirty clothes settling into a pile on the floor. Stepping inside, he felt the warmth of the water upon his back. Turning, he looked up into the stream, allowing it to pour like rain down upon his face. Without warning, he began to cry. Feeling weak, he slumped to the bottom of the tub, the water still falling all around him. He lay there, alone, for a long time, until the warmth of the shower gave way to an icy cold. He reached up and turned the shower off, then pulled a towel from the nearby cabinet and wrapped himself into it.
After he dried himself off, he moved into his bedroom. Reaching into his closet, way in the back behind his Penn State sweatshirt and London Fog overcoat, he found what he was looking for. He pulled the black suit out and laid it down upon the bed, refusing to allow his mind to wander back to the last time he had worn it. If he thought about it, about how many times he had worn it in the last year, he knew he would be unable to even put it on.
Less than an hour later, he was sitting in his car, hands clenched tight upon the steering wheel. He had less than ten minutes before he would be missed, yet he could not summon the courage to open the door and get out. He felt afraid, weak at the thought of entering the building. A sudden knock on the window caused him to jump, his body pulling hard against the seat belt as he spun quickly towards the noise.
“Are you okay?” someone asked. He nodded, heart still beating fast, and turned the engine off. He removed his seat belt and opened the door into the hot afternoon. He walked quickly from the car, as if a moment’s hesitation on his part would paralyze him forever. The people he passed looked at him and attempted a greeting, but he saw only the door. There, finally, he opened it wide and forced himself to go in. Looking to the left, he saw several people waiting for him, their expressions of obvious relief at his appearance causing him a feeling of guilt for being the last to arrive.
Then, he felt himself go, as if he was no longer there. He watched the rest of the service almost as a spectator, not really a participant at all. He saw himself line up with the other pallbearers, walking into the church behind the family. He listened, but from afar, as the minister thanked them for coming and proceeded to summarize his friend in words far too few to be accurate. He saw the family and friends as they received communion, and heard their voices, his included, as they sang Amazing Grace and recited The Lord’s Prayer. He watched as he led the pallbearers out of the church, lining up on either side of the casket, then carrying it to the hearse.
He drove to the cemetery, though he really had no awareness of doing so. He watched then as he and his fellow pallbearers positioned themselves again alongside the casket bringing it finally to rest under the large awning. They stood along the backside of the casket, facing the family and friends now seated or standing on the other side. He heard the minister’s voice again, speaking of God and love, forgiveness and hope eternal. He watched as the American flag was removed from the casket, folded, and placed into the hands of the grieving parents. Finally, he watched himself, fighting back tears and hands shaking, as he removed his boutonniere and placed it upon the top of the casket. He watched, too, as the grandmother walked slowly to the casket, laid her hand upon the top, and rubbed the wood gently while saying a silent goodbye to her angel, her grandson, the man in whom she saw the future.
He saw himself leave then, backing away from the scene too painful to endure any longer. He felt the tears then, hot on his face, as he began to sob. He knew then that it was all real, and that he was a spectator no longer. He was here, and this was happening, and the enormity of it all threatened to overwhelm him. He forced himself to move, to flee, and he was quickly in his car and leaving the horrible scene behind him. Once home, he retreated to the privacy of the bedroom, curling up as small as he could and praying for sleep to allow him a brief respite from the pain.
Sunday also dawned like most other southern summer mornings. Outside on the porch swing, he was again cool and comfortable, but again he could feel the day already beginning to warm. In the air, though, was more than the threat of heat and humidity. He felt a presence, a physical touch almost, of the friend gone too soon. He realized then that the day may indeed be hot, but at least it would be, as would tomorrow and tomorrow after that. For those left behind, life does go on, and the gentle reminders of those loved and lost are everywhere around us, if we will only take the time to see them.
I miss you, George. I know you are gone, but something of you still cheers the air. Goodnight and goodbye, old friend, for now your place is with the angels.
(Originally published in Southern Forum, October 1994)