When mom recently told me a friend had “died in his sleep” and asked if I was coming to the memorial, I didn’t think I could make it. My first reaction was to stall for time.
“I don’t know, mom….”
I worried about responsibilities at home: The blueberries need tending; they’re getting their first flush of ripening, the harvest is merely days away, and the plants need a lot of care right now. Besides, I don’t earn much as a grower and I can’t really afford to lose any working days right now.
“I’ll buy your tickets,” mom offered.
When she said that, I realized this was about more than finances and whether I could afford to attend a memorial. This was about family, even though I’d not kept close contact with my friend for years. His mother and mine are like sisters.
“Let me work out a few details, mom, and I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
As I made travel arrangements, I thought about him, and how we had met and changed over the years; he and his brother had played on my father’s Little League team more than 35 years ago and our families became fast, lifelong friends.
Growing up, he was cute and cuddly, the pudgy little guy with a winning smile, and the ladies cooed over him. He was a precocious boy who wasn’t afraid to rough things up with the older boys; he could be fearless and full of laughs, and we older kids worked him over pretty good.
His mother, like most Italian women and the women who knew him, doted on him.
He grew up into a man of formidable size, the kind of guy you would like to have on your side whenever you need a hand moving things around or keeping peace at the bar. Fortunately, he didn’t hold any grudges against us for tormenting him when he was a kid.
We didn’t stay in contact much as adults, mostly we knew how well—or not—the other was doing through our mothers. Yet, whenever we crossed paths at occasional family gatherings, he always met me with his huge disarming smile, a handshake and an embrace.
I saw him last at my own father’s memorial less than three years ago. He greeted me warmly as always, and had his own two boys, who appeared to have more of the devil in them than he had at their age. I noticed that he’d put on weight; that he’d probably been drinking a lot; his face was white and puffy. Perhaps he’d been under a lot of pressure, I remember thinking.
Mom said things had gotten pretty bad for him at home until finally his wife of more than 20 years demanded that he get out of the house by the first of the month. Unfortunately, mom added without a hint of irony, the day he was supposed to move out is the day he died.
He checked out in his own special way, I thought. He was having troubles with his heart, mom said, when I questioned her. The doctors had been running tests on him, but hadn’t yet received the results.
“Are you sure he didn’t die of an overdose or something?” I asked. “That just seems awfully young, mom. Dying in your sleep? At 44?”
“I don’t think so!” she declared, sounding surprised, even perturbed. There wasn’t any talk of drugs or an overdose.
I reflected on my own discomforts at home and how many times I’ve experienced misery in relationships past and present, how I’ve failed as a man to act as my father had under pressure: with respect, humor and grace, seldom with anger and never with the sting of bitterness, though I know he felt that as well. I’d seen him lose his temper but never his composure or dignity.
I thought about how many times I’ve felt sick to my stomach, dread rolling through in huge heavy waves, and wished I could flush it all down deep into the earth, expel it with one giant emetic purge, wished that I could run swiftly away from the rancor and fear of relationships gone awry, but I stuck with them and suffered indignities because I didn’t think it was manly to run.
I didn’t want to be like my biological father, who it seemed to me, quit when the family he created put demands on him that he wasn’t ready to meet. He became a flyboy. He fled, spawning more families along the way, leaving more fatherless children in his path.
I swore that I would never do that to my child; that I would never flee from my responsibilities, that I would break the cycle, and try to be a meaningful manly presence in my daughter’s life. I stayed physically close but fled in many other ways.
I’ve always tried to be like my stepfather, who clearly chose to stay close to his adopted family. Luckily, he found a woman who loved him, whom he could also love, and children he embraced as his own.
I haven’t been quite as lucky. I’ve picked relationships that haven’t always been good.
I thought of the countless days I hated myself for choosing to be in relationships that rocked me the wrong way, that felt more like kicks in the groin than the bliss of union, relationships which made me feel more miserable than happy, made me think about death more than life, and the many sleepless nights of feeling unwanted, undervalued, or worst of all, not needed. I thought about how these things can turn a man upside down, so that everything he owns, or thinks he owns, comes spilling out of him and the only thing he has left is to turn him self upright, or to collapse into a heap onto the ground.
Sometimes, after long struggle, a man decides he’s had enough, he runs out of gas and gives up, he quits, counter to everything he was taught growing up, things like stepping up to the plate, as my dad used to say, or standing in the gap and “manning” up, or taking it in the gut now and then to stay honest. A man, a good man, can’t be a lone actor. My friend needed his family and they needed him but I think it was too much for him.
Only after quietly assessing my own countless failures, and adding to them heaps of stress from unmet family obligations and a bleak outlook such as my friend’s was I able to understand how he might have taken an early leave of his family, just when they seemed to need him the most, the boys especially.
How else can you explain the sudden death of an otherwise healthy man?
At the memorial, odd bits and pieces of his story leaked out through people’s comments—he was having a tough time and had recently come to the Lord—and I felt bad for my friend, for his mom and his two boys. I hadn’t any idea how things had really gotten for him over the years, but from the sounds of it, it must have been pretty rough.
My friend had been out of work for years, he had lost his house and wasn’t making it, and was borrowing money from his mother, according to mom.
His oldest boy, barely into his 20s, had just gotten out of jail for drug use, and an addiction to heroin. His younger boy had been showing signs of trouble, “acting out,” as they say, but seemed to have found a place among the evangelical youth at the church where the memorial was held.
His wife was apparently having trouble staying sober. She, of course, appeared deeply troubled, not only by death, but by a myriad of doubts and struggles that weren’t entirely clear but evident in the sadness of her face, a sadness that seemed unrelated to death, and more to do with they way she lived her life.
An old man with a walker raised his hand to speak at the memorial. He was having trouble breathing as he worked his way down the aisle to meet the pastor presiding at the front of the church, an industrial building converted into a worship space.
My friend had apparently made acquaintances there and expressed interest in its programs only in the last few weeks before his death. Mostly, he came to bring his younger son to the church’s youth group.
The old man grabbed the microphone to talk about my friend: “Five weeks ago,” he said, whistling as he exhaled, “he came to the church here…bogged down…a defeated man…and I asked him to come up here…to pray the prayer of repentance with me…and to take Jesus into his heart.”
It had made a tremendous difference in my friend’s life, the gentleman said; he was a changed man. “Something’s different,” my friend reportedly told him, “I feel different now.”
It feels unnatural to me for a man of his youth, with two boys to watch out for, and possibilities still waiting, to suddenly die.
I’m still taking it in, still feeling the sad undercurrent of dark secrets that leaked into the memorial service, the terrible grief of an inconsolable mother, unattended, sobbing and convulsing, still wondering at the widow’s selection of music to open and end the service, which told of “new beginnings” and jilted love.
I’m still wondering if the oldest boy who just got out of jail will stay off drugs and do what he promised his father during the service, to make him proud and be the man his father wanted him to be, the kind of guy, as one person said, “Who would give you the shirt off his back but you’d better not ever try to take anything away from him.”
If a boy can learn that from his father, if he can learn to be both kind and tough, he’ll be off to a good start in life.
The young man sounded sincere, and there were men there, including myself, who witnessed his declaration that he would get it together and do right by his father. With his jailhouse-shorn head, he even looked up, as if peering into heaven, as if his father was right there looking down at him, and promised he’d be the man now and watch over his mother and little brother.
I was touched by his bravery.
But who will hold him to it? Who will hold him accountable? Which man present at the memorial will make sure he keeps his word? Some of the men themselves seemed utterly lost, or distracted and uncertain, medicated, numbed to dull grief. One or two men stood up to let the boys know they’d be watching out for them, men who were closest to their father.
It felt good to hear them say it; and I know that at least one of them meant what he said.
In some ways, however, the women who spoke at the service seemed to be the stronger sex: “If you need anything,” said one pointing to both boys, “you know that I’ll be there for you.” It’s the same sort of strong declaration I would have received (and often did receive) from my own mother’s friends.
The most certain to speak, however, those who were not plagued with doubt or grief, were our evangelical hosts. Between stories about my deceased friend from those who knew him best, our hosts let us know in no uncertain terms that because he had recently come to Jesus, he had found peace and was now with God.
“I know, that I know, that I KNOW!” the youth pastor howled, assuring the boys and their mother with a steady, pastoral gaze, his arm raised above his head, holding his bible, “I KNOW that he’s in a better place.”
It felt weakly reassuring. I didn’t want to hear about a “better place,” and wondered how anyone could know that my friend was better off now. And I wondered about his family and how much better off they were. §