Part Three: The Funeral
I drove through the night as my wife slept in the passenger seat. Normally we’d take shifts on such all-nighters; one hour on, one hour off, but we’d been married long enough for her to know that I’d never be able to sleep under the circumstances and being able to focus on the road would actually help ease my mind. In theory.
In fact, every turn of the road, every exit sign, every passing car somehow reminded me of Caroline. The time we drove an all-nighter back from a James Taylor concert, singing “You’ve Got A Friend” for what seemed like hours in the way home. The time we drove all night after work to in order to time a sunrise kayak expedition with an enormous pack of river otters. The time we drove all night along the backroads of our own town, just because we enjoyed each other’s company. All the all-nighters, all the good times…
As the sun began to rise I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear view mirror and realized that my beard had grown out of control since my last expedition into public. We stopped at a Target store to buy some electric clippers, freshen up, and change into more presentable clothes before making our way to the funeral. Already feeling awkward as hell about shaving my thick cro-magnon beard off over a trashcan in a public bathroom, I was startled when a young man in a red shirt and khakis appeared out of nowhere.
“Hey, man – what are you doing? You can’t shave in here.”
Where the hell did he come from? Do they have cameras in the bathrooms? Was he waiting in the stall?
“I know, I know…” I apologized. “We just stopped to buy the razor because I forgot to pack one.” This didn’t change his persona one bit, so I kept talking, “I realized I looked like a homeless person. I promise I’ll clean up like I was never here.” Still no change, now worried that he thought I actually _was_ homeless, I decided to go with the too-much-information route. “We drove all night to get to a funeral so I can bury my best friend.”
“Oh, man, I’m sorry. No worries, take your time, take your time,” he said with genuine compassion. “I don’t know what to say… shit, shit.”
I’m sure it scared the hell out of the poor kid when the half bearded man in the bathroom replied with a burst of uncontrollable laughter. Shit-Shit. Ahh, the universe’s cruel little joke for the day. I’m just glad he left the room before I finally shed my first tear. Then another. And another. I eventually snuck into an empty stall and did my best to control a flood of raw emotion I hadn’t felt in years. It was the first time I had been alone since receiving the bad news and all I could think of was the looming possibility of seeing poor Caroline again, this time laid out in a coffin. It was too much to process and I began wishing I had bought a straight blade instead of the damn electric trimmers in order to open a vein. That would show the khaki-wearing gistapo, I thought, “Clean up in the men’s bathroom.”
I eventually made it back into the light of day where my wife was patiently waiting for me. She immediately recognized the dawn of grief that had washed over me in the few minutes we had been apart and knew better than to try to console me or ask any questions. Instead, she took the pragmatic approach.
“You’ve got this,” she half-encouraged, half-scolded. “Caroline’s gonna need you to suck it up today, so save the crying for the ride home. You need to be fun Uncle Ditto today. For the kids. For her sisters. Keep your chin up, mister – there’s a lot more to the world than your ugly feet.”
I probably don’t say it often enough, but, damn I love my wife – especially when she mocks me by using my own cheesy lines against me. Then it dawned on me that the “chin-up” line wasn’t my line at all. Caroline used it against me decades earlier when I was caught sulking over a short term fling that ended poorly.
Enough with the memories already.
After anxiously wasting time at a nearby coffee shop, we made it to the church about twenty minutes before the service was scheduled to start but the parking lot was already full. The sidewalks and lawns were covered with people, many strangers from the majority of Caroline’s life before and after our time together. It was a beautiful sunny morning and most of the mourners were dressed as if they were going to a spring picnic rather than a funeral. Caroline would have loved that. Suddenly I wished I had worn the colorful tie she gave me for a job interview decades earlier. Wait – had I thrown it away? Ugh…
We made our way up the sidewalk toward the large double doors at the front of the church and I chatted briefly with various friends and extended family members, all talking about what a shame it was for a mother of two kids to die so tragically from an aneurysm. An aneurysm? It dawned on me that I hadn’t even thought to ask the cause of death.
Suddenly a second wave of panic hit me. I had been to dozens of funerals over the years – family members, co-workers, church members. I’d even buried my own son. But, this… this was different. I shouldn’t be here, I thought.
Caroline’s youngest sister saved me from the banal small talk by sneaking up behind and tapping me on the shoulder. Like a 4 year-old, I fell for it and turned to find no one before she popped up and wrapped me in one of the most memorable hugs of my life, kissing me on the cheek.
“I couldn’t sleep, Ditto,” she said, squeezing me even tighter. “I’m such an idiot, I can’t believe you had to find out by…”
“It’s not your fault,” I interrupted against her cheek. “It’s what I get for not checking Facebook for a few days.”
We remained stuck in our hug, our own silent island, happy to avoid the canned condolences and sappy sorrow for as long as we could. In the distance over her shoulder I caught a glimpse through a window near the pulpit. It was the corer of Caroline’s casket. It was open. Oh, God… My hands began to tremble as I burst into a sweat. I seriously can’t do this, I thought.
“I was hoping you’d maybe break the mood during the service and tell the story of how you two met in the woods?” she asked, still not letting go. “Let ‘em cry all they want if they don’t like her own nickname being spoken in church.”
“I should probably leave out the part where she puked all over the ER when the doc was draining the fluid from my testicles?”
Giggle-snort-chuckle, just like her big sis. “Yeah, probably.” She pushed back with a genuine smile on her face. “You’re a good one, Ditto. Her favorite.” She gave me a little slap on the cheek and gave my wife a quick hug before disappearing into the crowd. I never got to say goodbye.
Making my way up the stairs, I saw Caroline’s husband, Chris on the top landing, surrounded by fellow mourners. The last time we had seen each other was on a missions trip overseas almost a decade earlier.
“Chris!” I called out warmly above the murmur. I made my way up the final steps to greet him and didn’t recognize, or, was at least confused by the expression on his face – his eyes turning from solemn grief to… Anger? Hatred? I was raising my arms to give him a hug just as my second foot reached the ledge of the top step. I hadn’t noticed that he had coiled backward to load-up a powerful uppercut that he released to my jaw, further scrambling my already scrambled brain. I lost my footing and tumbled backwards down onto the concrete steps, sprawled out on my back.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Chris screamed down at me, my eyes still closed, my body upside down between the feet of people shuffling out of the way. “What? Did you come here to gloat? Killing her wasn’t enough for you?”
It was as if a military flash-bang had gone off in my head. Time stood still. I felt like I was trapped in another dimension, completely separated from reality as my mind raced to make sense of everything, anything that was happening in that split second. I eventually pried my eyes open to find what was become the strongest memory the day, the veins in Chris’ forehead and neck protruding in the sunlight. In the moment I felt very relieved that he didn’t have a weapon.
I should say that neither Chris nor I are violent people in the slightest. As such, I was utterly confused, but also wanted to defend myself. But over what? The last thing I’d want to do is respond by punching a grieving widower within sight of his wife’s casket and a crowd of onlookers. Even Jesus couldn’t get away with that.
“Don’t you ever come anywhere near my family again, or I’ll fucking…” he trailed off, doing his best to swallow the last two words into silence. “Get out of here! Just go!”
He threw his hands in the air and let out a final exasperated cry as tears began to flow. He turned to enter the church, followed by friends and family. I suddenly realized that an entire crowd was surrounding me, watching me as I laid there, still sprawled out upside down on the church steps. They all looked down on me with the same, perfectly understandable looks of contempt. “I don’t know what you did, but you should be ashamed of yourself,” their scowling faces said, warning me not to trespass on their loving patience.
At the corner of the landing was Caroline’s father, recently a widower, now outliving his oldest child. His hardened cowboy eyes followed his son-in-law into the church with a quizzical confusion before turning back to me, nodding a general acknowledgement of my presence while making it crystal clear that if I took one step toward the church he’d finish the job.
I didn’t need to be told again. I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on, but I also didn’t want to cause (anymore of) a scene, for Caroline’s sake. All I wanted to do was hide. But, I didn’t even know why.
“No idea,” I replied trying to get to my feet, before quickly realizing that I had cracked a couple of ribs.
“Let’s. Go.” I rasped breathlessly.
“Oh, hon – you’re bleeding,” she said with a fair bit of concern, reaching into my hairline. Seriously, why do people feel the need to touch sensitive nerve stumps of a new injury?
“Jesus,” she exhaled. “Your tooth! Where is it?” She was pulling my lips apart like a child on the playground. My tongue searched around and found the void – one of the same teeth that got knocked out the day Caroline and I met. Out of the corners of my eyes I began to notice some of the looks we were getting from other attendees.
“Just leave it,” I barked without room for question. Embarrassed, ashamed, and angry but not knowing for what, I just needed to get away from the countless gossip-starved eyes fixed on us. I began to walk as fast as I could against the flow of people back to our car in the gravel lot. My ribs were killing me.
“It’s okay,” I’d hear my wife assure strangers behind me. “He just had a little fall on the stairs. Don’t worry, he’ll be alright.”
As I opened the passenger door, I looked back toward the church and was glad Caroline’s kids weren’t around to witness all the commotion. The last thing I saw out of the corner of my eye was Jess coming back out of the church, searching the crowd with a concerned look on her face.
We had driven for at least an hour before my wife finally broke the silence to ask a question that must have been on her mind before my head even hit the pavement. “Were you two having an affair?”
“I don’t know what the hell’s going on,” I said in a tone we only use when no joking is allowed.
“What was Chris’ deal,” she thought aloud, pausing with every word. “He’s just not like that.”
Another hour went by in silence. More exits to small towns. More hills covered in sagebrush. But, most of all… more thinking. Endless thinking, hoping the past might inform the present when a couple of pieces fell into place.
“She didn’t die of an aneurysm,” I said.
“Why would you say that? How do you know?”
“Aneurysms don’t kill you at your favorite picnic spot in a beautiful park. They kill you on the bus in front of complete strangers. They kill you at your desk among co-workers. Aneurysms don’t care, they’ll kill you right in front of your own kids at the dinner table. Not on a comfy blanket in the aspens at sunset.”
“Then what did? Why would they lie about it?”
I thought back to the daughter of the pastor at a church I attended for a few years. She died in her locked bedroom. Of course, everybody in the congregation knew the girl was a (semi) closeted lesbian who had become deeply depressed, unable to find a place in her parents’ religious ethos, but expected to be sitting next to her mother in the front row every Sunday as her father preached of the fire and brimstone in store for the doomed homosexuals. When it was time for the memorial service, the cause of death was announced as a tragic pulmonary embolism. But, everyone knew, not gossiped, but knew…
“I’m pretty sure she killed herself,” I realized aloud.
“I didn’t want to say anything,” my wife said. “But, I’m pretty sure you’re right. I just don’t understand. Why? And, how could that possibly your fault?”
Another hundred miles behind us, countless thoughts come and gone. My mind hadn’t stopped racing since the scene at the church, looking for clues. We hadn’t seen each other in years. Most of our conversations were public on social media about kids, pets, recipes, and politics. Hell, the only time we’d even seen each other in years was…
“Honey,” my wife changed her tone to welcome no games. “Seriously, it’s okay to tell me if something happened between you two in Memphis.”
Memphis. Of course. Something did happen that I didn’t even recognize at the time.
Out Of The Closet
“Wait a second,” Caroline stammered in disbelief. I had just told her about my alter ego, Horus Gilgamesh. “Are you trying to tell me that you’re an atheist now? How is that even possible?”
“Honestly, how is it _not_ possible?,” I asked semi-rhetorically. “Once I got out of ministry I finally had a chance to actually think about it all. You know, actually think, for myself – probably for the first time since I came forward at that event I told you about.”
“Think about what?”
“I guess that I’ve just come to see that lack of belief is really the only natural or logical conclusion. It eventually became impossible to avoid once I gave myself the chance to think.”
“So, you doubt God in order to trust your own thoughts? Isn’t that just your own hubris?”
“Maybe, but at least it’s mine. How many Christians do you know who came to the conclusion that God and Jesus and the Bible are all real without having been indoctrinated for years by their families, their churches, even the culture of living in a Christian nation? Conversely, I’ve met many atheists who were once devout Christians, pastors even. But, they eventually all came to the same natural conclusion in their own ways without ever being preached at, indoctrinated as a child, or limiting their entire understanding of the universe to what was written down in a single book thousands of years ago. Without fairy tales and threats of hell to the contrary, it’s only natural to rely on the evidence in front of our senses rather than a faith in the unseen.” I was insufferable.
“I don’t get it. How it is to ‘natural’ to be an atheist?” she asked, snarkily using air quotes to mock my repeated use of the word.
“Think about it,” I replied as if it were so obvious that a third grader would understand. “We were all natural born atheists until it was trained out of us by the religious leaders of our parents choosing. We had no reason to believe until stories of Noah’s Ark and Jesus walking on water were mixed in with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. The only reason most folks aren’t atheists is the same reason they aren’t Muslims, more about culture and tradition than religion. At some point most people had to choose – believe or disappoint their parents.”
“Or their best friends?” she sighed with an eyeroll. In hindsight, I mistook her tone as sarcastic playfulness, when in reality, it was one deep pain and betrayal – first twenty years ago, but again that evening. As she poured another glass of wine, I caught a glimpse of something I tried to ignore at the time. Brokenness. True brokenness, not the kind that people promise Jesus can fix.
Avoiding taking responsibility for my past, I ignored her barb and replied, “Not believing in gods was our only option until stories of talking snakes and human sacrifice were forced into our psyche. The word wouldn’t even exist if not for all of the gods that Christians don’t believe in, either.”
“But, I don’t get it,” she interjected, doing her best to ignore my last point. “What actually changed for you? Why did you leave ministry?”
“It was extremely difficult, but I didn’t really have a choice,” I said. “It’s not like I had a huge ‘ah-ha’ moment like those forced during the altar call in church. It was just a bunch of things that helped me realize that our ancestors needed to create religions that revolved around them in order to survive, our earliest attempts to explain the unknown.”
“But there’s still a lot of unknown,” she started before I rudely interrupted.
“Sure, but there’s a lot more that is known than our ancestors could have ever imagined. Our need for a powerful god to protect and love and care for us seems to coincide with the startling realization that the big scary universe does not. But, for me I realized that just because I wanted there to be a god who would crush my enemies and kiss my boo-boos, that didn’t make it any more true than Santa Claus living at the north pole. Earthquakes, diseases, war – they all still happen just as often to ‘god’s children’ as atheists.” This time it was my turn to use air quotes.
“Then what’s the difference?”
“Delusion,” I said quite plainly without hesitation. I now wish I hadn’t gone down this road, but I was on a roll. “Well, self-inflicted delusion, actually. The church or some asshole sitting on a cliff might start the fire, but eventually it is up to us to make our gods in our own image in order to explain the things we can’t understand or justify the things we can’t accept. Thus the thousands of conflicting denominations on every street corner, catering to our latest need in a spiritual superpower du jour.”
“But, that’s about religion, not relationship,” she chimed in.
“Ohh, sure… relationship,” I mocked uncaringly. “The thing is, by our very human nature, we all have the need to feel loved and important, right?”
“Well, then, I give you a personal living savior who died just for you, your personal cheerleader who just happens to like the same flavor ice cream as you. There’s only one catch…”
Her eyebrows raised.
“You never get to meet him. Nobody does. How convenient – the all-powerful Oz, the man behind the curtain.”
“Well,” she squirmed uncomfortably, “I mean, we’ll meet him in heaven.”
I laughed, probably too theatrically for my own good, “Just like Jesus, exactly how many people do you know who have been to heaven? For that matter, do you know anyone who knows anyone who claims to have been to heaven or met Jesus? I mean, when you stop to think about it, it’s almost sounds like it’s all just too good to be true.” Not done with my blind assault on faith in general, I added sarcastically, “Almost.”
There was an awkward silence. Instead of letting it go and changing the subject, I rambled on, challenging her more directly, “That is, if you allow yourself to stop to think about it. Have you?”
“Heaven?” she asked.
“Any of it,” I said, “all of it. Most people get their religion before they get their jobs and families and other priorities. The only time they even ever have time to think about their faith is on Sunday mornings at church. And, even then they aren’t really thinking for themselves, and certainly not about the big picture of religions as a whole. Instead, they are just following along with what is being told to them, taught to the, filling in blanks found in the church bulletin. More likely, they are using the down time to reflect on the past week and plan the next.”
Her eyes lit up and she giggled for the first time that night, “Guilty as charged, officer.”
She was clearly trying to add some levity back into the conversation and I wish I left it there. But, once a preacher, always a preacher – I couldn’t help myself.
“What about you?” I asked. “Have you ever really taken a step back from the cliff that night and thought about some of the insane shit I got you to scream into the canyon that night? ‘I am nothing without Jesus.’ Says who?”
She broke eye contact for the first time all night, maybe in our entire relationship, staring at her bread as if wishing it would save her from this conversation.
“You,” she eventually replied without looking up. “I guess I just trusted you.”
Now I stared at my own bread. More silence. For what seemed like an eternity.
“Can I interest you two in some dessert?” asked our server.
At the time I felt relieved by the merciful interruption, saving me from myself, as I ordered dessert and changed the subject to her kid’s sporting events. Now I’d give anything for a chance to say the two simple words I just couldn’t bring myself to muster in the moment, “I’m sorry.”
I’m so sorry, Shit-Shit. I’m so fucking sorry…
“Honey!” My wife’s voice knocked me out of the movie in my head, sounding more desperate now, and I struggled to remember what we were even talking about. “Just tell me – what happened between you two?”
Normally it would seem like a conversation of this sort would quickly escalate into heightened accusations and repeated denials of infidelity. But, I was in the middle of analyzing every conversation Caroline and I had ever had and was caught off guard by the question.
“Wait, do you mean, like romantically? Sexually?” I answered in complete confusion. “Come on…”
She paused for long enough without answering that it was clear even she didn’t have any faith in the line of questioning. “I don’t know,” she sighed with a sense of relief. “Chris was just in such a rage, I can’t imagine what going in in his poor mind.”
That’s when it finally all clicked into place for me, my brain making the final connections as my heart sank deep in my chest.
”Jesus,” I sighed, looking out the window. “He was right.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I mean, he’s got it all backwards,” talking mostly to myself now. “But, still – he’s right.”
“Stop it, honey – you’re scaring me. You didn’t kill Shit-Shit!” She took a hand off the wheel and grabbed my arm with considerable force, shaking me. “What are you talking about?”
The lack of sleep, the scene at the funeral, the pain in my jaw and my side, but, mostly in my heart. I had reached the tipping point. When my mind had done its job of unraveling the mystery I felt my entire body begin to shut down with one final realization.
“I took away her magic feather,” I whispered to myself, sounding like a crazy person.
“What? What does that even mean?”
“Pull over, I’m going to be sick.”
And, I still am.
Next Up: The Father