When I opened the door, to the room where they had laid out Andrew’s body, which had been embalmed and ’primed’ in preparation for the wake, the smell hit me like a firewall of chemicals and cheap perfume. Like death, but sugarcoated. I remember keeping my eyes down, focused on the tacky floral print berber carpet – the kind you would find in a cheap motel, scarred by cigarette burns. As Randy, the portly funeral director very gingerly explained the “restorative techniques” they had used to make Andrew as presentable as possible, I felt my chest tighten and I found myself trying to fight back tears yet again. But I wasn’t crying for Andrew this time. I hadn’t even gotten the nerve to direct my eyes to the beautiful chestnut casket that I had the honor of carefully selecting, along with his parents and two sisters. I was crying for Randy – the middle-aged, homely funeral director who had to look at this tawdry carpet and tolerate this stifling odor day after day. This sad man had to look at people like us everyday, smiling politely through our tears and pretending to listen to the very same ’script’ he had recited verbatim countless times before.
I closed my eyes and I felt a heavy sadness because I knew Randy was trying his best to maintain his composure as he discussed the use of silicone in order to “flesh out” the right side of Andrew’s face in order to make him more “aesthetically pleasing”. I also knew that he was using everything in his power to stop picturing the beautiful young man who laid before him walking down a set of railroad tracks less than half a mile from the house he grew up in, jumping two hundred feet to his death. That’s what made me sad at that moment. Know that his mind was playing the same grainy movie over and over again, just like ours. Except Randy had to watch a different version of this horrific movie everyday of his life and for a moment I envied him. I wanted to be able to change channels too.
Suddenly Randy stopped speaking and I heard Andrew’s mother, Marge let out one solitary cry. The sound was guttural and raw and it filled the room with a heavy and palpable mixture of utter despondency and defeat. As I glanced upward, I noticed that Randy had stepped aside and Andrew’s parents and two sisters had approached the casket and that since entering the room no less than ten to fifteen minutes prior, I had yet to move beyond the doorway. Facing forward and breathing heavily, I approached the casket and stopped. Andrew’s father, John, who was always a bit of an introvert and very seldom displayed any sort of emotion, turned away from his son and looked toward his wife Marge and two, daughters. I stood silently, and I noticed I was beginning to sweat underneath my uncomfortable mourning attire. I watched as Andrew’s father carefully removed his eyeglasses from his face, pinched he bridge of his nose and closed his eyes for a brief moment. I stood silently and awaited some sort of relief—a few nice words or a comforting anecdote. Anything but tears. But nothing came. About a minute passed as his father continued to look in the direction of his wife and remaining children, intentionally avoiding the sight of his only son, laying less than ten feet away from where he was standing. Then, without a word, John reached up and placed his eyeglasses back on his face, looked once more in the direction of his girls and gave them a simple nod. Immediately, Marge and the children turned and began to walk in my direction. I remained still and I felt my eyes begin to well up. A father’s final nod to his son. No words could have possibly been more appropriate than that simple and distinguished gesture. Without speaking he managed to say all that needed to be said:
“I love you. I will always love you. I am proud of you. I understand.”
With that, I turned to leave and saw Randy bend down to brush a couple of stray hairs from Andrew’s forehead. I paused before shutting the door and just then Randy looked up across the room in my direction and flashed me a friendly smile and silently mouthed the words, “I’m sorry”. I smiled and gave him a silent nod of appreciation.