On Saturday afternoon I’m at a friend’s house. There are six or seven of us and we’re all talking about the French language and other assorted topics. At some point I feel the urge to check my phone and notice that my mother called only a few minutes ago and left a message. I get up, walk down the hall, and check my voicemail.
Her voice is strained, shaking, and quiet as she urges me to call her as soon as possible, so I step into the corridor to hear her clearly and return the call. She answers with a sniff and her voice is hoarse. At first I don’t understand what she’s saying. It does not register in my mind. “Jerry fell into a coma yesterday and he was unresponsive. You have to come back as soon as possible.” I tell her I’ll buy a ticket and head down as soon as I can, but what I don’t yet realize is that my cousin is not just in a coma. He is dead.
Riding back from home my mind rings and sinks and echoes and spins and once I get home I talk to Mom again and the news is fully revealed to me. After we speak I sit on the couch reflecting upon the dead. My father, my grandparents, now my cousin. He was only 42 years old and has a 13 year old son; both much too young for this. My face falls into my hands as I sob. How can this happen? I can’t believe he’s gone.
The next two days I’m worried because I don’t yet know when the funeral will be, and I’m scheduled to move into a new apartment on Sunday. Mother tells me the coroner has to perform an autopsy and various tests to determine the actual cause of death, but I suspect it to be a result of his long battle with diabetes. The days pass and I arrange to come down on Wednesday, return to Montreal Saturday and commence with moving, but over these few days I am tormented by the thought that I might not be able to make it to the funeral should they schedule it for Saturday or Sunday or even next week and if such a thing happened I wouldn’t forgive myself.
But it works out. The funeral is scheduled for Friday with a wake on Thursday. I pack my bags and take a six-hour bus ride to Toronto.
I stay at my sister Tiffany’s house and play with my little nephew Daniel. He’s a joy, always smiling such that he brings joy into the lives of everyone he touches. This is a counterbalance to what is happening now; a tether holding me from sinking into profound misery. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” I tell my sister.
“I can’t believe it either,” she says.
We watch TV and talk about our family, cousins and aunts and uncles, the Riddell side of our family as well who we never see anymore since Dad died 14 years ago and how angry it makes us that we do not have these connections that we should. Daniel should know them but doesn’t. And there is no plaque, no tombstone or marker of any kind at the site of our father’s grave. We are both cheated by this, angry and disappointed. When her husband Martin comes home we talk for a while, but he cannot join us for the wake tomorrow. The hours pass and darkness deepens so we all turn in for the night.
In the morning I rise in a sweat, plagued by strange dreams and thinking of the day ahead. Tiffany has to go to work but will be home around 4. Martin has to work in the evening, but he takes Daniel to his parents place for the day and I have the house to myself, so I busy myself by catching up with work and trying to write something. I open up a short story that I started a year ago but never got beyond the first scene and write 500 or so laboured words then quit. I am distracted by social media and emails. I have to edit a series of blog posts and it’s all I can do to even read the comments and calculate a course of action for how to rectify the problems. It is surmountable, but not at this moment. I am about to put my cousin in the ground. I don’t care about work right now.
My sister and Martin arrive around 4 o’clock and I’m dressed in all black; pants and shirt. Tiffany has borrowed a van from work so she can drive us to the Scott Funeral Home in downtown Brampton. The van is filthy and smells like stale cigarettes, plus there are problems with the brakes so we can’t take the highway therefore relegating us to traversing city routes to get there.
Along the way we’re casual and easy, talking about life and the future as my sister steers the unwieldy vehicle along Eglinton and Matheson, then up Hurontario until it transforms into Main Street and we arrive at the place where my cousin’s embalmed body lies in a light blue casket with a bouquet of white flowers on top. As we pull into the parking lot I see my brother Mike and stepdad Dave standing outside in the summer heat smoking. They are wearing sunglasses and don’t take them off at all during the entire wake. I presume this is to hide their sorrow because I do not see any tears from either of them, although I know my brother feels this pain as I do for he and Jerry were very close growing up being only two years apart, terrorizing the neighbourhood and causing a disturbance wherever they roamed.
When we go inside I see my mother first and I can tell she’s been crying again. She holds a tissue in her hand and there are wrinkles around her eyes. Otherwise she looks good, because she always does, and I hold her for the first of many times during these difficult days.
Next I talk to Isaih, Jerry’s son. He is only 13 years old and has to deal with the same pain my sister and I felt 14 years ago when our father died to cancer, very sick and frail was he when he passed away. I tell him, “I know what you’re going through. It never gets easy,” and he does not say anything, only bows his head. I don’t need him to say anything because his silence says more than words. Many times at family diners he ceaselessly body checks me and tries to wrestle, but on this day there are no such outbursts. No such indication that he would attempt anything of such a nature. I remember the way I was after my father died. The way I wanted to do nothing but drink and get high for many weeks. Would that he were old enough, he would do the same I have no doubt.
When I talk to my cousin Crystal I’ve never seen her so sad. For as long as I have known her she’s always been beautiful, always been happy, always been smiling. But she has lost a brother, so not today. Today she holds yellow tissues in her hand and wears a solemn frown and I hold her, ask her if she is alright and she says she is but, no, she really isn’t but will be in time.
I look over at the casket against the wall. The lid is open and there’s a picture of Jerry on a stand next to it. In the photo he’s wearing a baseball cap and clean shaven with bright blue eyes. He’s in his prime. My sister is already at the casket downlooking, and I approach it as well. As I near the casket, dread comes over me. It is so difficult to get close. I stand one step behind my sister, just able to see his face. After a few moments I draw the courage to step closer and see him more fully.
His skin is grey and pallid, almost vampiric. His lips are closed tight. His hair is cut short and brushed. His eyes are forever closed. I look down to his hands and see a back rosary chain entangled around his fingers which are clasped together. I cannot look at this for long. I cannot think much at all. But still there is the welling up in my throat, the stinging in my eyes, the hot tears collecting and falling. He is my cousin and although we may not have been close in life, although we may have had our differences, still I love him and still I hurt. I weep for my dead cousin.
When I turn away I see my Aunt Alice: his mother. She asks me how I’m doing, but I tell her, “Don’t worry about me. This isn’t about me. This is about you.” She can barely speak, nor can I, and she falls into me as though paralyzed. No parent should ever have to outlive their children. No parent should ever know that pain.
But this day is not all pain and tears. It’s also a time to reconnect with the family members we don’t see often enough. The cousins on my Mother’s side I never go to know very well growing up because they were all so much older than my sister and I, but now that we are all adults we can relate. I sit next to Juliana on a couch and catch up with her for a while then my brother comes to me and says there’s someone else who wants to talk to me. I get up and go back to the hallway and there’s my cousin Tino sitting in a chair next to Mom. He’s happy to see me and mentions that he’s seen my posts on Facebook since I added him recently. We get into a long conversation about Tillsonburg, the town where he and my other Portuguese cousins grew up, and the place where my family lived in for just 8 months when I was a kid. It was such a short time, but I have so many vivid memories of that place and I sometimes wish we never left. He has many stories to tell about that place and I love hearing all of it. It’s times like these that I’m reminded of what a wonderful family I really do have.
As I look around, I’m amazed by how many people arrive. Not only family members, but friends of Jerry and Isiah all come to pay their respects and offer support. His hockey coach is there. His friends from school are there. Many other people who I have never seen before show up as well, and while I know this is a difficult time for Isaih I see that he is still well loved, and will be taken care of with so many people by his side. He is wearing a blue shirt with a black vest and pants, a pair of imitation RayBans and my brother, always the joker, quips that he has an audition to be Tom Cruise’s stunt double. We all laugh, including Isaih.
A short while later my brother offers to take him to Harveys, “Anything you want. It’s my treat,” he says. They leave together and when he returns later on I see him scarfing down a poutine.
“Why don’t you come to Montreal and I’ll show you the real poutine,” I say to him.
“I don’t speak French,” he says between bites.
“That’s okay. You can get by with English, and I’ll help you learn.”
I walk away to find the coffee station and don’t want to bother him too much because all his friends are sitting around him. All of them at just such an age that I once was when I had no idea what this pain was like and I was never athletic or fun or popular like they might be instead I was always so alone and strange and sullen, even in the prime high school years I was like that but I am not under any negative emotion to see this but am glad to see it, and draw a confident comfort in seeing so many people dotting on him, offering support any way he needs it. I said my piece already and need not do more. He still wears his sunglasses but I know what lies behind the dark plastic lenses; how the tears are bound to escape him and this is only a mask to wear, but we all have to wear masks sometime.
I am not wearing my sunglasses. They are resting folded in my left breast pocket with a card produced by the funeral home. I find the card on a stand next to the guestbook. Approaching the table I calm myself, draw a breath, and sign my name upon the guestbook. I flip through the pages and look at the names of all who have arrived so far, back and forth I flip though the pages reflecting on the selection of photos of my cousin, when he was young and beautiful, when he was a father and happy, when he was an athlete and strong. The best moments of his life are in this book and I have to flip through it twice to fully take them into myself. Jerry and I had never been close. I never understood the way we was. But in this place, with these photos, with these people and hearing their stories and recollections I begin to see who he really was and it is both beautiful and miserable.
I take a card from the table and the front of it features a photo of Jerry from his senior prom. He is wearing a sharp tuxedo and his hair is done in a sort of cameo-style, so it’s shaved on the sides and stands straight up on top like a box. He’s leaning against his white v5.0 Mustang; Jerry always loved Mustangs and this car was his pride and joy. If anything in this life could ever stand as a symbol of my cousin it’s that car, and in this picture he’s living the most thrilling days of his youth. At this time I was too young to know him but still he was my cousin and looking into the past through this image I see him clearly. I can almost hear his laughter booming through the paper, his voice talking to me, telling me that it’s all right, and that I shouldn’t mourn him for too long because he wouldn’t want that, and that life must go on and we must persevere.
Inside the card there is another photo of my cousin; a recent one of him at my cousin’s wedding when he was part of the wedding party are wore a suit with a light blue tie and pocket square and in this one he looks as good as he ever has. That night is still so vivid in the eye of memory, and I remember him then so well it’s as though I can still hear him talk to me like he did that night at the bar, telling me to share a drink with him. It’s the last significant memory I have of my cousin. The dates of his arrival and departure are written below: April 27, 1973 Brampton, Ontario. May 23 2015, Brampton, Ontario. On the facing page there’s poem. It’s called Family Chain, and there’s no byline:
We knew little that morning,
God was going to call your name,
In life we loved you dearly,
In death we do the same.
It broke our hearts to lose you,
You did not go alone.
For part of us went with you,
The day God called you home.
You left us beautiful memories,
Your love is still our guide,
And though we cannot see you,
You are always by our side.
Our family chain is broken,
And nothing seems the same,
But as God calls us one by one,
The chain will link again.
I fold the card and place it in my pocket, reflecting and very quiet, behind my sunglasses which I don’t want to wear because I want the world to know my grief. I look around and wish to be closer to my family because it occurs to me that any one of us could be next. Life is so fragile and precious and no matter how young or old you might the gleaming scythe of the reaper might swing for you because some people live to be 100 while others meet their end before they even reach adulthood and there’s no way to know who’s number might be called next. I look around the room at all my cousins, aunts and uncles and think about how much there is about them I don’t know, and what it shame it is that we don’t stay in touch as often as we should, so I make my rounds, make more connections, and make the most of what is otherwise a dark day.
In the hallway I’m talking to my Mike and Dave, and Mom is there too. She asks me if I want to be a pall bearer during the funeral because my brother is going to be one, and so is Miguel, Crystal’s husband. “It would be an honour,” I say. It pleases me to be able to use that expression with complete honestly and conviction.
Dave says, “You’re damn right it would be an honour.” There is never any doubt, never any hesitation in accepting the charge. It’s a morose task, but he was my cousin and I loved him, so I accept the honour dutifully, but not gladly.
After a couple hours at the wake I notice my sister walking out as I’m talking to someone, and she looks at me expectantly as she passes. Engaged in conversation I don’t want to break away, but after a few minutes I end the conversation and find her at Harvey’s across the street with four of my cousins ordering food. I order the Angus burger combo with Crystal’s Cara Foods discount card and we all sit down at a large corner table, nourishing ourselves, and talk about the past.
It’s profound how important family is. Jerry once said, “If you don’t have family, you’ve got nothing.” At the time I knew he had to be right, but at 25 years old and wrapped up in all the cares and toils of my own life I didn’t think much of it. Now, in this place, in the wake of this event, I see the truth in what he said and how we all come together when it matters most even if we are spread across the country, and that the bonds of love, the memories of being together in the younger years and the later years, are unbreakable links. Our family chain is a long one, and very strong, and even though it might be one link shorter it is no less profound and powerful.
Friday comes. After we drop off Daniel with Martin’s mother for the day we head to the funeral home once more. Dressed all in black again, my mind is somber and clear, unusually calm as we drive down Matheson and up Hurontario once more until it turns into Main Street. When we pull into the parking lot an attendant wedges a FUNERAL sign in the crack between the hood and fender of the car. It’s a beautiful day outside; sunny and very hot. A beautiful day to play baseball. Jerry loved baseball. Isaih plays baseball.
Inside, the atmosphere is much darker than the wake. The same people have arrived, plus many more, but there are no reminiscences on better days, no jokes are told, and few smiles are worn. One more time I go to the casket and gaze upon my cousin. Still there and undisturbed he is at peace. As I look at him, into him, I hear his voice. He is conversing with me. Laughing with me. But he does not move, and the same grey pallor washes throughout his skin. I sigh a weary sigh and again tears collect, well up from the core and push to the surface. My sister looks at him again too and I can feel her grief even though I don’t see her face, I know it. When I look at Martin, he’s shedding tears as well. They are true tears. Red eyes. He didn’t know my cousin well but still he weeps and I find great honour in this. I admire him for opening his heart without fear.
Later on I’m in the hallway talking to my Aunt Susie. She lives in Vancouver and had to take a plane down here, but unfortunately Uncle Freddy couldn’t make it due to work commitments. As a funny coincidence, she already had the week booked off for vacation. I hardly think this is what she had in mind. At the wake she asked if I wanted to speak during the service, give a eulogy, and I said that I would. In the hallway now she stops me, sitting on a bench with a tissue in her hand, and she still looks young and fair like she always has. “Do you still want to say something in the service?” she asks me.
I stop and look down, or into myself, thinking and feeling the weight of this question. “Yes,” I say. “I’m going to do it.” She asks me if I’m sure and I nod. I have never been so sure. Ideas of what to say had been formulating since the day before, and though I had not written anything down I could feel an homage to my cousin taking shape within me, words falling into place as if completing a jigsaw puzzle, memories materializing from times that we all should remember. Yes I’ll speak. Of course I’ll speak.
Back in the room with the casket, we’re all collecting ourselves. Aunt Alice is not well and I console her. I hold her, but not too tightly. I want to not cry with her, to be the strong one, the rock, but it’s impossible. I am not made of stone. One of the funeral home attendants hands out the white gloves to the pall bearers and explains how the procedure will go. It is all simple enough and I take the gloves, fold them neatly together and look at them. They are spotless and smooth and the palm side has rubbery nodules embedded in the fabric to ensure grip. I hold them in my hand and think. I put them in my pocket and wait.
Soon they ask all non-immediate family members to leave the room because they are starting the service momentarily. People trickle out leaving just us behind. I stand alone with my arms crossed and everything is washing against me like a swamp and I a sponge for human emotion. I have to dry my eyes several times. Once it’s down to just the family we all pay our last respects to Jerry. All four of my aunts in turn bend over the opened casket and kiss his frozen flesh once on the cheek. When Aunt Alice does this she needs Uncle Wally to lift her up because she can’t reach, so he grabs around her waist and hoists her over and she sees the face of her son again, for the last time a kiss. After my uncle puts her down, they both recede and a funeral attendant begins to close the casket lid.
I will never forget my Aunt Alice reaching out to her son, the tissue in her had, saying “no my son” as the lid comes down, down, and down slowly and not making a sound but the crushing wail of my Aunt when it shuts, a cry that could tear both heart and soul into ribbons and throw them into a caustic wind leaving only dust. A cry that shook our cores, that pulled all of us into it, that knocked us flat and breathless, overflowing and heaving in the madness of death. Mother cried, “He won’t be coming over for any more dinners…” and I hold her again for as long as I need to.
Once we are all gathered in the chapel, they slowly roll in the light blue casket. I am sitting in the front row, at the side, next to my brother. The priest speaks for a time, and then calls up those who will give eulogies. First is Aunt Susie, then myself, then my brother.
Aunt Susie has a written speech prepared and my brother goes with her to the pulpit, stands at her side like a bodyguard waiting for any moment when she might need his support. She speaks slowly, carefully, and has to collect herself a few times. Her speech is filled with warm memories and glowing sentiment, encapsulating the life of my cousin from her vantage point where she watched him grow from a child to a man.
After she speaks I am called up. So I cross the floor and stand behind the pulpit griping the sides to steel myself and deliver my eulogy:
“I don’t have anything prepared because I wanted this to be from the heart. When I heard this happened I was very shocked as we all were. He was much too young for this to happen to him. But it’s encouraging to see how many people came out to show their support, and now he has a beautiful son to carry on his name.
“I remember when we all lived together in a house in Mississauga. This was about 10 years ago. It was me and my mom with Aunt Alice and Uncle Wally, and Jerry came to live with us too and with him came Isaih. I had never been very close with my cousin up until this time, but I got to know him a little better when we lived together. I saw he had a really sharp temper, and I think that temper got the better of him sometimes. He actually used to scare me a little bit. But I understand now why he was the way he was. Life wasn’t easy for him. His upbringing was hard, and he lived with diabetes for a long time and that certainly didn’t make things any easier on him. So now I understand why he seemed to have all this anger inside of him.
But I don’t want to remember him for all those bad things I just mentioned. Last summer we all went to Crystals wedding. It was a great time. We were drinking, we were dancing and everyone had a great night. I remember seeing him there, and he looked good. He was in the wedding party and he was wearing this sharp suit, he was well groomed, and he just looked like a million bucks that night. Towards the end of the night he pulled me aside saying, “Hey Chris! Come here! You gotta try one of these drinks. They’re delicious.” And so I did. I went over there and we shared a drink. It was the only time I’d ever shared a drink with him, but in that time I got to see a different side of him. Just for that short time we got to be close.
“And that’s how I’m going to remember him: when he was happy. Thank you.”
The priest commends me on my eulogy when I return to my seat, making way for my brother. He takes the stage with tremendous prescience and a proud, resonant voice.
“I like to move around a lot when I’m talking so if anyone at the back can’t hear me just speak up.” No one complains so he continues delivering his speech not at the pulpit with the microphone, but while gesticulating and pacing about the area in front of the casket. During his speech my brother reminds me of a motivational speaker for so strong is his stage prescience and so heartfelt his speech. He is just two years younger than Jerry, so the two of them grew up together. “Him and I, we were like Frick and Frack of the neighbourhood,” he says. He related stories about how they used to ride their bikes together and take them of ramps and once Mike cut his chin after going off one of these jumps. Most people would stop after that, but not Jerry. He would instead make the ramp a little higher and go again. “That’s another thing about Jerry: fearless. Put a wall in front of him, he’ll blow it up. But a mountain in front of him, he’ll tunnel through it.”
His stories are fascinating and touching, and I am held in awe of my brother and the deep connection held with Jerry. In a way, I am almost jealous that they had so many great times together. “He was always at my hockey games. Every time I scored he’d be right up there pounding on the glass,” he says. Jerry was like a big brother to him, and I had not been fully aware of how close they were until hearing all of these things. He knew him in a way that I never could have, and by listening to him we were all brought closer to his memory.
The priest speaks again for a while and the service ends with what seems like a peculiar music choice: a rap song from the Fast and Furious 8 soundtrack. It sounds out of place, but Jerry and Isaih love those movies, so it does fit. We six pall bearers put on our white gloves and take our positions aside the casket. I’m in the middle on the left. We each lay a hand on the casket and a funeral attendant rolls it down the aisle as the music resounds. When we reach the hallway we all grab our handles and lift. As we carry Jerry out the door and into the back of the hearse, there are six boys from Isaih’s hockey team outside, three to each side, and they all have hockey sticks. When we emerge from the building they begin slapping the sticks on the ground, creating a clattering chorus of wood on asphalt, a true solute to the man who was their assistant coach and taught them so much about the game they love. The casket rolls inside the vehicle and when the door shuts the clattering stops. It’s a beautiful day… Who cares?
In the car again with Tiffany and Martin we follow the procession to the cemetery where we pall bearers are called on again. Once everyone arrives, we pull the casket out of the hearse and carry it step by step to the grave site where a rectangular hole six feet deep awaits. Each step is like walking through quicksand while wearing a suit of armor and the sun is sweltering. It is quiet, very quiet, when he lay him down on the contraption that lowers the casket. The final service begins and the pall bearers all must place their gloves on the casket. I go there, fold them together and place them on the panel with a lingering touch, thinking of him and why. We all stand aside and the priest begins again and flowers are passed around to everyone who wants one. I take a red rose and am one of the first people to place their flower on the casket, again thinking of him and why. Mother leaves a flower on the casket and comes to me full of tears, full of pain, and she needs me to hold her again. I will hold her as long as she needs to be held. My sister joins us.
I talk to my cousin Sandra for the second that day because I’m worried. She’s been fighting cancer for a long time, and presently I can’t bear the thought of losing another loved one. Already have I lost my Father to cancer and I do not want to lose another. I tell her about my writing business and urge her to look me up online. Staying in touch with her would mean a lot to me.
I don’t even realize it when they begin lowering the casket into the place where all is gone but nothing forgotten. I move in and lean over to see the descent and still can’t believe he’s gone. It reaches the bottom and everyone begins to clear out one by one returning to their cars. But not I. I remain as the backhoe pulls in and lays down its hydraulic feet. I watch as its shovel pulls in the dirt. I listen as the big chunks clunk against the wood. A strange calmness comes over me and the only sound is the hum of the machine. This is the end. It’s really over.
Later on we’re all heading back to my sister’s house. Martin has to work, and Dave goes home to rest, but me, Mom, Tiffany and Mike all go together and stop at the LCBO for a few drinks. As we leave the parking lot I mention how I’ve always wanted to go to Portugal because that’s where our family is from, and I say that it would be a good family trip that we all could do together. Mike says,
“Yeah we could get everyone together. Juliana, and Crystal, and Auntie Alice, and—“ he stops himself.
“You were going to say Jerry, weren’t you?” Mom says.
“Yeah…” he says. It’s times like these that you realize when someone really is gone. The world seems a little emptier, the family chain a little shorter.
We pick up Daniel and the five us go back to the house. There we enjoy a few drinks and talk about things while sitting on the backyard patio. We watch Daniel run and play with his soccer ball, kicking it around like a striker with his little legs. My brother picks him up, tosses him high in the air and catches him. Daniel giggles with glee at each new throw.
Although one life has ended, his is only beginning and it’s one filled with love. Daniel is like a conduit for joy, it occurs to me. He fills the hearts of everyone he encounters with such tenderness and care, and our family, as troubled as it may have been, is getting better. With Daniel in our lives, we can look up just a little bit more even in such dark times as these.
The four of us sit at the table with our drinks and my mother raises a toast. “To Jerry,” she says and we all crash our drinks together.