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.
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.