A Mother Speaks

Ken001

LILBURN, GA – The parking lot is nearly empty as I pull in; ten minutes early, I sit in my car and wait until it’s time.  I had not expected a big turnout.  There are only two other cars here, and a limousine.  And of course, there’s the hearse.

As I enter, an older gentleman, a Baptist preacher, introduces himself like only a Baptist preacher would; he’s a little too glad to meet me and a little too eager to thank me for coming.  Ken was Catholic.  No, he never met Ken he says a little sheepishly, when asked.

“It must be tough to perform a funeral service for someone you haven’t met,” I say.

“The only thing tougher is doing one for someone you knew really well,” he replies, and it’s clear he speaks from experience.  He looks to me for some information that he can use in his eulogy, some golden nugget, some anecdote.

I’ve got nothing for him.  “Ken was kind of odd,” I offer as helpfully as I can, and the pastor’s shoulders fall in disappointment before he goes to seek better insights elsewhere.

Why did I come to this funeral?  Ken and I had not spoken much over the past several years.

———-

We were in 10th grade in Journalism class when I met Ken.  I was the new kid, uncomfortable, unsure, awkward, and out of my element.  Ken was all of those things too, and so we had that in common.  He said he’d moved from Brooklyn, but to a kid from the Georgia hinterlands, Brooklyn seemed a foreign country.  He talked of his old home with enthusiasm, and said he was already planning to return.  Someday.

Ken was interested only in the things that Ken was interested in, which is to say that he would gladly talk about places I’d never been and music I’d never heard, but he wasn’t concerned with  much else beyond his likes.  I found that, like the other kids, I couldn’t really connect with him.  We weren’t close, but I had a sense that he viewed me as being among his closer friends, if Ken ever considered himself close to anyone.

He showed me something he’d written about his memories of Brooklyn.  His writing was good.  Poignant even.  As I read his piece, I was surprised to learn that Ken wasn’t the new kid in school that I thought he was; he had moved more than five years prior.  He had apparently just never adjusted; he still felt out of place.  His writing gave me a feel for the love he had for his old home and alerted me to a sense of pain that he felt within his own skin.

I got lucky.  Something I wrote caught the teacher’s attention, and I was promoted to the school newspaper staff, big time journalism.  It also meant that I’d found my niche, a place where I wasn’t so awkward.

We were talking about what to do with a part of the paper, and I thought of Ken’s Brooklyn piece.  I shared it with my new friend Mark, the editor.  Mark read Ken’s story and thought it was good, too.  He even gave Ken his own column, arranged to fit at the edge of the page.  “Ken’s Corner” he called it, and Ken could write about any odd thing he wanted.  He did.

Ken wrote about whatever pleased Ken.  There were columns about alternative bands nobody had ever heard of.  He wrote about the challenges of getting a girl’s attention.  He wrote about television shows and radio stations and TV Guide ads and other minutiae that ruled the lives of 80’s teens, but always from a perspective that was a little outside the norm.  He seemed to enjoy that space, that place that was just out of reach of mainstream ideas of fashion, of culture, of life.

What he wrote about music offended some kids, and what he wrote about dating, some others.  Ken never flinched.  He would publish one column and immediately begin to think about ideas for the next one.  Writing his own column seemed for him to be an outlet. Ken shared with others – maybe for the first time ever – something about himself.  Kids began to see him in a new light.  He became a minor celebrity with that column, and he seemed to finally find a place where he fit.

I didn’t try very hard to keep in touch.  20 years later, I found by accident that we lived just 10 minutes apart in the rural South.  He hadn’t returned to Brooklyn after all.  I saw him a few times, to catch up.  He was older.  Like me, he was heavier.  Ken was still the same Ken though.

He had high blood pressure, and didn’t take it – or his medication — seriously.  Last week he was hospitalized and while there, had a mild stroke.  I visited with him briefly, the first time I’d seen him in three years, and he was optimistic.  He was going to take his medicine, he said.  He was a looking forward to losing weight.  He made all of the resolutions for a changed life that a man makes when forced to face his own mortality.  He went home soon after.

A few days later, he was dead.

———-

At his funeral, there are only seven of us present, including the preacher.  It seems like an awfully small number to reflect on a man’s 47 years.  The pastor, still looking to fill time, asks if we wouldn’t mind talking about Ken some in the service.

I don’t know what to say, but I stand before his mother, his sister, and his uncle at the front of the chapel.  “I knew Ken a lot less than anyone here,” I begin.  I talk of meeting Ken, of our journalism class, and of his high school newspaper column.  I speak about Ken’s unique spirit, the best that I can.  It’s not much.  I tell someone else’s story, the only funny anecdote I have to offer of Ken, of how he was surprised to learn that the Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles.

“Why didn’t I know this? When did this happen?” asks an incredulous Ken.

“1957.”

The story gets a laugh, and with it, I get his family’s confirmation that they too know that Ken was different.

Afterward, there’s a brief reception.  There’s food for maybe 25 people.  Most of it will go untouched.  His family politely thanks me for coming and for speaking, and I’m embarrassed about that, because I wasn’t a good friend.

A parent shouldn’t have to bury their child, no matter his age.  Ken’s mother is devastated, and the day is understandably difficult for her.  She speaks with me for a while about Ken.

“Oh, he was so proud of that column,” she remembers.  “He came home from school so excited, saying ‘Ma, they gave me my own column!  Can you believe it?’” She talks with the pride of a mother, and for a little while, the past 30 years are gone.

“Of course they did, because you are good!  You are a good writer,” she says.  She glows as she remembers the moment, and her face softens.  The encouragement I hear in her words makes me think she tried often to make her boy believe in himself more.

They had left New York for South Florida when Ken was 11 years old.

“He hated Florida,” she tells me.  “He always wanted to go back home to Brooklyn.”

I wonder if his desire to go back was because he couldn’t make friends, or if he wouldn’t make friends because he wanted to go back.  I see in her eyes the doubt of a mother who wonders if things couldn’t have been different for her son.

“There weren’t many people here,” she tells me, “but you know what?  I’d rather have a few people who care than a whole room full of people who were here because they felt obligated.”

It’s an indictment, but she doesn’t realize it.

“He was so smart,” she says.  “He had such a memory.  He could tell you what page an article was on in the encyclopedia.  If you wanted to know where ‘Animals’ was, he would tell you the page, and what pictures were there.”

She’s right.  That’s pretty impressive.

She’s thankful for those who reached out to her son when he was ill.

“When he was in the hospital, people wished him well over the internet.  He called me and he said to me, ‘Ma, all these years I thought people didn’t care about me, but they do.  They’ve been telling me they hope I get better.'”   Her voice echoes the excitement she heard in his.  She knows about my short hospital visit and thanks me for it, but I suddenly feel guilty for not doing much more.

She talks about how her son wanted to be a journalist.  He started college she says, but then lost interest; she doesn’t know why.  The question seems to haunt her, all these years later.

That’s not all that haunts her.  There are unanswered questions about why her son died, and whether or not someone could have done something to get help to him sooner.  Details are sketchy.  There are conflicting stories.

“I’ll never get the answers to those questions,” she laments.

Me, I get the answer to my question.  Now I know what I’m doing here.

A mother deserves the right to talk about her son, and to have someone listen.  For a little while, I can do that.

 

 

Questions Answered

They held a funeral for Mike Sledge yesterday.

It doesn’t matter how many funerals you go to; you never get used to it. You never know what to say and no matter what you say, someone has already said it. I’ve resigned myself to just being present, another body to count, so that when someone says “Look at what a great turnout there is,” that there will be at least one more to add to the tally.

Mike and I crossed paths often when we were in high school, even though we were not much alike. He was a hard worker with his own lawn business; I got extra cash from my mother. He was a glandular case with a throw-rug of chest hair who shaved every day; I weighed 110 pounds and had as much hair on my chin as I did in my jock.  I was bookish, with braces; Mike was an athlete with straight white teeth and a man’s voice. Even his name was macho.

And yet Mike actually picked me to play on his flag football team in gym class, once. It was between me and Scooter Troup, the kid that collected ants. He didn’t have to choose me, but he did. He even encouraged me: “Don’t screw up,” he said.   I was too wiry to block anyone, and so they made me a receiver.

“What do you want me to do, Mike?”

“You go long.”

It was his way of keeping me out of his hair; I think he was just glad to know I wouldn’t be looking in the dirt for ants.  No one covered me because it was obvious that there was no chance Mike would throw me that ball, and even if he did, I couldn’t possibly catch it.

Mike called a play that required all of the receivers to go left. I’m not sure how, but I ended up on the right side of the field, all alone. Wondering where everyone went, I turned around to look, and just as I did the ball hit me in the chest. I threw my hands up in a reflex action, and the ball stuck in my arms, a miracle reception. “Run you damn fool!,” Mike encouraged me, and I did.  I didn’t go far, but the other kids had a new-found respect for me. They made sure to put coverage on me from then on. “Nice job,” Mike said, and I think he meant it.

Years later, with a marriage on the rocks and enough personal problems to keep me busy, I wasn’t really sure why I decided to come; I hadn’t seen Mike since the 11th grade, and afterward, we didn’t even try to keep in touch. We had never been close.  At the church, people were milling around and looking at the floor, whispering, the way they do at a funeral.  His widow was haggard, and his pretty little girl was at her side. I gave his parents and his sister my condolences in that awkward way you do, and they said they appreciated it through their grief.

In high school, all of the girls liked Mike. I liked all of the girls. That never worked out in my favor. One particular girl, however, was something special.  They had dated for a while and it ended, but she never completely got over him.  She was vivacious and fun.  Her smile was intoxicating, and her laugh hooked me.  I was smitten.  I hung around her as much as I could, and listened to her as she talked about Mike occasionally. I hated to hear about how she thought about him, but I was too busy thinking about kissing her to let it bother me.  Despite her pining and my day dreaming, we gradually became friends, the way the way the pretty girls are always friends with the guys who have no hope of dating them.

I never had a shot, I knew.  She was beautiful and popular, and I was the skinny bookworm that no one considered a threat.  We’d go places and do things as friends, and while that wasn’t entirely satisfying for me, it was at least a way to stay near her.  She’d talk to me about Mike and the other boys that had her fancy, and I’d talk about girls that I liked, to keep up the conversation.  I never mentioned that the girls I liked were all her.  For me, it beame normal.  We’d go out to eat together, just the two of us, and tell stupid jokes and laugh loudly, but it never seemed odd to me.  Girls like her didn’t date guys like me I knew.  We’d talk late into the night some nights, not wanting our conversations to end, and I never considered why that was.  I didn’t have time to think about it; I was just trying to figure out how to get her to love me, the way I loved her.  I never did.  Eventually, she went off to college and we drifted off our separate ways.

But I thought about her from time to time.  I heard she’d married, and had a couple of kids.  I did the same.  Still, I’d wonder where she was sometimes, and if she was happy, and if the man who’d finally gotten her attention was good to her.  I’d see her warm, golden smile in my memory, and couldn’t resist smiling back like a grinning fool at the thought of her.

As time passed, I began to think back to those dinners and those movies and those jokes we shared, and for the first time, something didn’t add up right.  All those years she had longed for Mike — or so I thought — but she spent her time with me.  It started making little sense.  Could I have missed something?  The thought took hold and nagged me.  Was there something more to our friendship that I didn’t see?  Did she have feelings for me, too?

And so there I was at Mike’s funeral after a four hour drive, not quite sure why I’d come.  Who am I kidding?  I was secretly hoping for the long shot, that she’d show up there also.

I was not disappointed.

I caught sight of someone that looked like her from behind, seated in the pews, and my pulse quickened.  Could it really be her?  I made my way over through the crowd, as quickly yet with as much decorum as possible.

“Excuse me, ma’am.”  I stepped on an old woman’s open-toed shoe and got her pained grunt in response.

As I got closer, there was no doubt.  In the quiet of the church, my heart seemed a drumbeat.   I approached as calmly as possible and greeted her companions before turning my attention to her, further down the aisle.

The years had been kind to her.  No more an awkward teenager, she had filled out in all of the right ways, more mature, more beautiful.  It was hard to take my eyes off of her, this woman I’d never met.   There was an air of sophistication about her, and she held herself with a quiet confidence that the girl I once knew had lacked.  Yet there was no doubt that this was the same girl, now woman, familiar, now strange.  I was overjoyed to see her, and yet unsure of who she was, all at the same time.  It was uncomfortable.

And then she smiled.

She smiled a golden smile that instantly had the same power over me that it had so many years before.  It grabbed me and drew me in and wouldn’t let go, leaving me a grinning idiot and glad for it.  It was really her!  I wanted to shout and hug her hard, but this was not the time nor place.

I self-consciously invited myself to sit next to her, and we made small talk, sharing pictures of our children until the service started.   (I noted she did not show a picture of her husband.)  The necklace she wore — goodness —  the necklace she wore  lay so as to accent the contours of her feminine neckline, and somehow it made the room a bit warmer.  I found myself forced to concentrate on her eyes, lest my gaze wander.  The service was interminably long, but I found I really didn’t mind; I was just glad to once again be near her, to smell her perfume, to be close.  I spent the entire time scheming, dreaming up reasons that we should stay together for a while afterwards.

We had lunch.  From the moment we sat down, we were as wrapped up in our own raucous laughter, as oblivious to everyone else as we’d been all those years ago.  We talked about some old times, teased with one another a little bit, and shared a little bit more about our lives than small talk would ordinarily permit.  We had been together just the week before, 20 years ago.

It was over too quickly.

I tried to drink in every moment, remember every joke, every lilt of her voice, to take it with me, preserve it, and replay it into my old age.  I knew even then, that this moment couldn’t possibly come again in a lifetime, and I reveled in it, in her, in us, as long as possible.

On the long drive home, through the eyes of a man, I was able to see what boyish eyes could never fully discern:  there really was something there.  I had missed it.  I never knew.  Our conversation was too comfortable, our laughter too loud, our smiles too big.  She had loved me.  She had always loved me, just like I’d loved her.  It was a wonderful realization, and a sudden, shocking confrontation with the truth.

I smiled all the way home, the mystery solved.  An incredible sense of calm came over me.  I knew what I’d never thought I could know, what I never thought possible.  She had loved me.  Who could have imagined it?

I arrived home.  My children were asleep, and I kissed them gently.  My wife woke long enough to chide me for being so late and to remind me of a litany of things I had to do the following day, but soon she was back asleep and I was again alone.

I took off my suit, hung my things, placed them in the closet, pulled the door closed behind me, and sat on the floor, in the dark.

And sobbed.

 

(Written February, 2013)

Something in the Way She Moves

The moving van was loaded, her family’s things packed. She stood before me, big tears rolling softly down her cheeks.

I think I loved her from the moment I first met her. I’ve always loved her. We were just 15.

Our love began with a move. I was the new kid, and her parents dragged her and her sister along for a visit, to welcome us to town. Her curly red hair, her sparkling green eyes and her cute freckles screamed out “Notice me!” No one else in the room seemed to be able to hear it, but I did, and I complied. Shyness is a cruel master. I had nothing to say, but I did take notice. I watched her with her sister and the adults, and I could tell that there was something about her.

She didn’t say much to me, either; she mostly sat there on the floor and ignored me, but at least she didn’t say anything about the huge red zit on my nose. That was special. When you love someone, you take what you can get, and so that was our first special moment: she ignored the zit on my nose.

Later we ended up in the same places a lot, and around the same people. It turned out that she had a personality that was as big and as warm as the South Florida sun overhead. I knew she was beautiful on the outside – that was obvious – but I found she was even lovelier inside. She was sincere and sweet, and always happy. She smelled like heaven.

I would make excuses to talk with her. I found I could make a fool of myself to get her to laugh, and so I did, her personal jester. Her laughter became my drug, and I’d sell my dignity for silly antics to get another dose.

She’d had a boyfriend, naturally. It had ended. I got to know him a little. I asked him about her, and he told me that she was good in bed. I hated him for that, the lying bastard. She was too young, and too sweet, and not that kind of girl. I knew right then that I understood her better than he ever could.

I worked on my courage. It took months and several rehearsals, but I asked her on a date and she accepted. My mother drove us. Not only was this our first date, it was also mine. Somehow, things must’ve gone well, because a second one followed. There was no doubting it: I knew I was in love. Maybe I was a late bloomer, or maybe it was that first love thing. Whatever it was, this was no teenage crush; I had a deep, profound sense of awe about this girl.

What guy wouldn’t be proud that she’d go out him? I was bragging to another guy about taking her on a date. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, and wanted to share. There was a problem: he said he was planning to ask her out, too. Was he insane? He was threatening my bliss. This guy, once a friend, was instantly a rival bent on my destruction. I had to act quickly; my whole future was on the line.

I asked her to take a walk with me. It was night, it was raining, and my heart was pounding. I had to know: was she interested in seeing this other guy? Wasn’t it laughable that he’d think she could be interested in him? As if she could be impressed by being driven around by some other guy’s mother!

She responded as any rational 15-year-old girl would: she thought I was insane. Upon reflection, I realized that I was. Love can do that.

No, she had not dated this guy, she said. No, she had no desire to date this guy.

That answer made my heart nearly leap from my chest! She must love me, too!

Yes, she said, it was nice going to the movies, with me …

As a friend.

No more painful words have ever been spoken to any man, anywhere, at any time. Every male knows and dreads that little three-word dagger. I just let it hang there, my tense heart, momentarily elated, now lost in my stomach. The raindrops were soaking into my shorts, a suitable metaphor. We ended our walk.

I had been stupid. I had assumed too much. I had rushed in. I was a fool. I was 15, and didn’t know any better.

We were friends from that point on, because she said we were. We would continue to be friends, as long as she said we would be. Faced with the choice of being her friend or not being around her at all, I happily accepted friendship. She didn’t know that only one of us was friendly, that the other one was In Love. There was no way could I tell her.

We continued to be in the same places, traveling in the same circles, the way that you do when you’re kids. If she volunteered to help somewhere, I volunteered too, to be close to her. If she went somewhere, I happened to go there too, to be nearby. I’d watch her, follow her, sit at home alone and wonder what she was doing then, right at that moment, and who was lucky enough to be with her.

She had a few boyfriends. Or guy friends. I could never really tell for sure which they were, but I suspected that most of them had been as carried away by the odor of her perfume as I had been, only to be rebuffed. Good. It served them right, for trying to get close to my girl. As far as I was concerned, that’s what she was: My Girl.

Try though I might, I couldn’t sustain that illusion for myself. I moved on, out of necessity. I eventually found a steady girlfriend, but I never could quite shake my girl, either. The rumor mill told me that she had come to her senses, and that she might be interested in dating me. I broke it off with my steady immediately, or I tried to. She cried. She blubbered, and I felt guilty. I was a cad. It was all due to hearsay, I knew. My girlfriend had just lost out to an imagined opportunity of mine, rooted loosely in rumor and speculation. I had to admit it was a dumb, hurtful thing for me to do, and so I apologized and asked her to take me back.

We continued to be friends, my girl and I, as best I was able. She was always warm to me, always fun, and we laughed together when I could find an excuse to be near her. I sometimes wondered if she was hiding something more from me, but the very idea was silly. She had made herself clear already. She was popular with the guys the way the pretty girls always are, but I imagined that we had a special bond. When I was near her I would try to get her attention, without being noticeable. I became so skilled at maintaining the balance, I could’ve been a tightrope walker. I could not dare let on that I loved her, lest I be demoted from “friend” and banished forever. That would not do; I would take what I could get.

Everything she did was remarkable. There was the time she wore that red and white-striped swimsuit to the beach, forever may it be emblazoned upon my memory. There was the time that I took her picture, and she looked right through my camera into my goofy squinted eye, and deep into my soul. I still smile back at the photo. She used some funny words and expressions, and I find myself still repeating them, occasionally.

I was biding my time, is what I was doing. I was waiting for her to express an interest in me. Maybe I was waiting for myself to get some more courage, or waiting for the clouds to part and a voice from Heaven to give me a command punctuated by angel’s harps. Maybe I was waiting for my girlfriend to wizen up and dump me. I couldn’t bear to risk the friendship, and forever blow my chances with my girl, so I adopted the strategy of just being patient. There was still time, I thought; I had plenty of time.

There is never enough time.

She was leaving, moving to a new town. I was heartbroken. I arrived as they were loading the last of her family’s things. Those big, silent tears testified to her sadness at leaving. Whether I was there to comfort her or myself I’m still not certain, but something deep inside, tired of pretending, finally sprang to action. Shyness may be a cruel master, but there is something to be said for the power of desperation.

It was remarkably natural, the way I leaned over and kissed her lips. It was also thoroughly unexpected. It was wonderful, is what it was. Without thinking about it I had kissed her, the softest, sweetest kiss I’ve ever known.

Here was the kiss that must have inspired all other kisses to come afterwards, a kiss that shamed all kisses that came before, a kiss that humiliated that senseless big screen lip mashing between Bogart and Bergman, a kiss that would have made Antony tell Cleopatra to go kiss her asp. The angels sang.

My moment had come. Without even meaning to, I had seized it.

She was surprised, but she didn’t pull away. I was even more surprised, and it dawned on me — lip to lip — what I’d done. “I’m really going to miss you,” I mumbled, and stumbled away backwards, into the night.

I left. She was leaving, and we were not to be. A move had brought us together, and a move took away our chances. My time had ended.

I heard she fell in love with someone, and he made her happy. There were kids, and a house, and probably payments for braces, and maybe even a dog. I fell in love, too.

So we went our separate ways, my girl and I.

I never told her. She never heard me tell her how wonderful she was, how much I loved her, how much her laughter made me feel alive. She deserved to know it, but I never told. My time had ended.

But I still love her. Few men ever get the chance to be truly moved by a woman, to find the one that is made just for them, and my luck was better than most. Knowing that will have to be enough for me …

… and my girl.

 

 

(Originally written February, 1988)