Thoughts of an Author in Training
My best friend Amanda rang me on July first the summer of 2012 to tell me that our friend from high school had been dead for almost twenty-four hours. I listen to her simultaneously sob and inhale a cigarette as she tried to ease the stress of delivering such horrible news. It’s dinner time and my stomach is vulnerably empty.
“They found Tyler this morning,” Amanda said. “He wasn’t breathing and by the time the paramedics came it was too late to revive him.”
The word dead traveled miles to deliver one quick pinch through the phone and stole my thoughts to breathe. Words, I had to say words. How could he be dead?
“Who found him?” I said.
“His mom found him.”
I just imagined Tyler’s mother sent to the basement to wake up her son for breakfast and in horror finding him immobile and lifeless, but worst of all that she could do nothing. That he was already dead. I couldn’t help but selfishly think of my mother. My imagination is wild with faces and tears, a mother holding her son.
“His mother?” I said trying to produce a conversation but I failed. “Hey, Amanda can I call you later?” Not waiting for a response, I hung up and dropped the phone letting my hands hang lose, numb. I sit close to the ground and cry. The involuntary sounds of crying seem easier than actual formed words.
In the four years that I knew Tyler most of his friends and family were aware that his life was fragile, being born with an irregular heart, it still wasn’t acceptable that he was gone. From birth he struggled with enlarged arteries and the extra electrical pathway made his heart beat fast and unpredictably. This natural condition when mixed with drugs was what worried those who knew him most. His trouble with over medicating himself was something his parents were aware of, but over time grew ignorant towards. I imagine that after trying everything, rehab, counseling, house arrest, that at one point they just have to trust that love and little faith will make the days seem less uncontrollable and make Tyler realize that he didn’t need drugs to feel accepted. But now at 22 he’d seen his last day and left his parents, three younger brothers, two dogs, and eight Chinchillas to settle with his death.
I was oblivious to the problem when I became friends with Tyler and we dated in high school after meeting in physics class. When we lost contact after graduation, I had extinguished the fact that Tyler was always living on the edge, tangoing with death at times. I had forgotten about the possibility of death in the routine of my everyday life.
Tyler’s best friend Shane called me. Shane and I were only in acquaintance because Tyler and I dated my Junior year, Tyler’s senior year. I haven’t talked to Shane in three years since I left home for college in Greeley.
I saw his name on my caller ID, I hesitated to answer in fear of hearing his voice, it sounded so much like Tyler’s, except Shane had a higher pitched laugh, something I doubt I would be hearing over the phone.
“Hello,” I said slowly.
“Hey Rose, it’s Shane.”
“Oh hey,” I said attempting to act as if this was a surprise. “What’s up?” it was a strange regurgitation of small talk, highly awkward for the situation, but it was better than breaking in to tears.
“Well, I just thought I’d check up on you and see how you were taking the news. I talked to Amanda and she told me that you knew.”
I didn’t know they talked anymore. Shane was Tyler’s best friend outside of school, so Amanda and I only really hung out with him when I dragged her along to save me from being the third wheel with the two boys. “Just hanging in there I guess. Um, how are you handling this? You must be a mess.”
“Yeah, well I’m surviving,” he said raising his voice in a casual response. “Its shit what happened, poor bastard dying of heart failure in his sleep.”
“Heart failure?” I didn’t know if I should admit my assumption that it was an overdose. I felt guilty for thinking it was Tyler’s own fault for what happened and not nature’s. “I thought that, well, I guess I heard differently.”
“Everybody thought it was the drugs but he’d been clean from drugs for a couple months. It was the heart condition that won this time. But for his mom’s sake, I’m glad it wasn’t an overdose,” he said.
I felt comfort in knowing that his mom didn’t have to lose her son to an overdose of pain medications and anti-depressants.
I can’t anticipate where the conversation is going so the phone holds silent for a bit until Shane breaks the silence.
“I miss him already,” he said. “I lost my best friend and brother today, and my baby lost her Godfather. Did you know I had a baby? You probably already knew, but Tyler was going to be the best Godfather. Always wanting to play with her and just showing off all that he knew about magic tricks, babies love magic,” he broke to laugh a little bit. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m getting too old for this.”
I wondered if babies did love magic. Tyler was known for his magic, something that for most people older than twelve would have been lame, but Tyler kept it in style often levitating in the lobby of school for a group of peers.
I know that at twenty-four Shane isn’t old, just older than all the rest of us, but I know what he means. It seems dreadful to replace your best friend of nine years. Like starting over after assuming you’ve already figured everything out and found a soul mate to share that with.
His uncontrollable bursting of conversation is strange, like he’s clueing me in on three years of his life but giving himself only minutes to do it. The conversation is reaching thirty minutes and I’m astounded that he chose me to confess his anxiety to. It feels new and unrehearsed, like he isn’t telling anybody else how he really feels. I don’t mind listening.
“You know he really liked you Rose,” he said. “I wanted you two to work out but it made sense that you had to move on to someone more stable I guess.”
I struggle to repress any memories of Tyler today. I feel that I don’t deserve to have any thoughts of him since I called off the relationship and have neglected to keep in touch in the last three years. Regret lingers in my mouth as Shane tries to ease the facts of our relationship. I want to explain my sorrow for this feeling of abandonment after leaving Tyler. I miss him, but I can’t forget how we were two completely different people.
Tyler made his money in high school from drugs, I made mine working at a sandwich shop and cleaning my room. Tyler didn’t see his business as any real topic to bring up conveniently in a conversation, so he didn’t.
Amanda was the first one to clue me in on Tyler’s problems. She asked me if I knew how many pills of Oxy Tyler had left one Friday.
“How would I know that?” I said. “Why would Tyler have drugs?”
“You didn’t know?” Amanda said. “If you want anything good in this town Tyler has it, or he knows where to get it.”
For six months, I had no idea that he was soliciting his meds. His prescriptions and medications he sold to buy different drugs. He bought Ecstasy or Mushrooms and everyone in town new this fact except me, the one who held his hand in the hallway and kissed him before class. When I finally asked him about drugs he didn’t think his actions were affecting me directly. If anything he thought I would be excited because now we could do them together.
Stability seems cruel to think about now that he’s dead. Maybe I could’ve tried to give him more of an option to stay sober. Maybe I could have been his stability, but the Oxycodone, Xanax and Ecstasy ruined my attempt at any simple boy meets girl relationship.
I contain my frustration and uneasy feelings to focus on the conversation with Shane.“Yeah, I liked him too,” I said. “I’m going to miss him,” is all I can manage to translate from my remorse.
“Well I guess there’s nothing left except to celebrate what we remember,” he said. “Will you do me a favor and send me any photographs you may have of you and Tyler. I’m putting together a collage for his mom and the funeral.” he said.
The funeral! The thought of the event grabs my stomach and pulls tightly making me want to vomit. I shy away from wanting to share my feelings and nobody enjoys crying alongside strangers. I don’t want to answer any questions or make small talk with people I haven’t seen since graduation which is what this funeral will force all of us to do. But I feel obligated in the personal request from Shane. I guess it’ll be a relief, relief from the guilt that’s grown in the absence of our friendship.
“K,” I said. “Thanks for calling me Shane. I guess I’ll be seeing you.”
“Bye Rosie. Good to hear your voice again.”
The small church parking lot off of the highway is full of cars. The week passed quickly and it’s the day of the Funeral. Amanda and I sit, reclined in the front seat of her silver car silent as she finishes the Camel Twenty-Two that’s been resting between her lips. She’s been chain smoking since we left. She anxious and I imagine stressed to know that we’ll be locked in a church unable to escape until it’s over.
Voices creep threw the cracked window on the driver’s side as couples walk by the window. Old people, children, strangers, all file pass our line of vision and exit the scene when they reach the next vehicle. Our car is sheltered by large trucks on either side and the windows are vaguely shaded to obscure any peering in from the outside.
“I don’t know any of these people,” I say to Amanda.
“Neither do I.” she says. “This should be interesting to see who we do actually know. It’s been awhile.” she inhales while rolling up the window and traps the exhale of her cigarette within the heat of the car.
We exit her vehicle and I feel exposed. My dress clings to the back of my unshaven legs. The black material melted to my skin in the thirty minute drive with no air conditioning, and three wrong turns to the church. The black thin straps feel too tight and uncomfortable around my shoulders. My cardigan is thick and oversized making the horizontal blue stripes look uneven as it hangs around my elbows. None of the attempts that morning to prepare a proper outfit seem to be paying off. The invitation, if you can call it that, said to dress casual that the family would be wearing jeans and shades of blue. I didn’t know how to process this but my mother and I decided that jeans seemed a little underdressed for church.
I look over to Amanda whose black slacks and light blue top call to be much more comfortable than my dress. Her blonde hair is kinked in waves reaching down to her shoulders. I grab her arm to balance my heels on the gravel as we close the space between our car and the church, the space between us and what’s left of Tyler.
Gathered outside the entrance is a small group of high school survivors. There is a group of six that I recognize from my days at Ralston Valley High School. All of them Graduates with Tyler from 2008, in which I remember sitting high in the stands of the CU Event Center counting their steps to receive their diplomas. I was too high up to see their faces in the stands that day, and now being so close it’s like not seeing them again. All the six present have changed carrying extra weight, having longer hair, two are engaged, and all of them are void of smiles or any happiness to see one another.
I release Amanda’s arm and join the circle of six, with my hands in my sweater, silent.
Shane exits the front entrance of the church to gather up the group and a few strangers off to the right, we’re the last, all huddled and kicking at cigarette butts still burning on the side walk, doing anything to avoid going inside. He’s suited for a formal event and more rounded than I remember. His hair is still the soft brown and short length that it was, which makes the blue tie stand independently from his features. He gives some of us hugs, and we exchange fake smiles and silence, in respect for the situation I assume.
“Thanks for coming.” Shane says in a soft tone as he hugs me with one of his arms folded one over my shoulder and the other under my arm.
Single file none of us are eager to pass through the doors where we stop at the stairs that leads to the main floor. Off to the left we’re informed by a properly dressed man that it is our last chance to view the casket and pay individual respects. I had no idea that it would be an open casket funeral. I stay close in line hiding behind the man who’s stopped in front of me and over six feet tall. I close my eyes as the line halts in the small church and I try to picture Tyler. His stretched and tall body is thin as he moves around in my mind. His brown hair holds a little grease and is bowled shaped reaching past his nose. I remember how he used to shake his hair out of his eyes as he tilted his head to the left. Then he would lean down from his height of 6’5 and kiss me goodbye. His face holds a ridiculous grin as he has a deck of cards trying to find the one that’s mine. His fingers are long and untended moving quickly, back and forth flowing rhythmically as he shuffles.
Then I try to picture him in a casket.
“Rose,” Amanda whispers from behind me in line. “You ok?”
“Yeah I’m fine.” I move to climb up the five steps that open to the main lobby.
Groups can wander between a few tables outside the entrance of the Sanctuary before the ceremony is scheduled to begin. I wander with the rest of the line to sign in to the guest book. It seems unnatural to take attendance at a funeral, maybe I won’t, but the pen meets the paper and writes my name anyways.
The left side of the lobby under a small window holds a shrine of art and Origami that he must have done. I didn’t even know he painted. He didn’t paint when I knew him, and I can see that he’s good but it makes sense. Everything he did he taught himself, perfected it, and then moved on to conquer something else.
I remember one particular night when Tyler and I were first dating he was tutoring me on Physics in his kitchen at the dining room table. It was late on a weekday. I was awful at physics, I can’t manipulate numbers like I can with words as a writer, but Tyler didn’t even have to try. I vaguely recall what solution I was trying to calculate, but he laid his head on the table, forehead between his arms and recited physics. The speed of gravity, the formulas to find density, mass, and volume just came creeping out of his mouth all while he was balancing between a state of sleep and frustration that I didn’t understand.
High School never seemed to be an adequate challenge for all that he was accomplishing in class. He was in accelerated classes and still graduated with a grade point average of 4.0. He would draw in mid-air things that he was trying to communicate to me but the words couldn’t be formulated by his mouth fast enough. The rest of his friends however weren’t as fluid in intellectual thought, so he had to slow himself down somehow. That’s where the drugs came in. He became addicted to a life style outside himself. He wanted to be part of the collective experience of High School be he could only do that if he could dumb himself down.
I move on from the shrine to the table with all the pictures of his friends and family. The poster was a standard size, black color, thick with an unorganized collection of about twelve photographs. I feel guilty having not sent Shane any photographs but he seems to have filled the poster regardless. The first picture that catches my eye is him and his three younger brothers. Tyler’s freakishly tall height presents a challenge for the balance of the frame and capturing the four growing boys, none the less they look cute, uncomplicated, and happy.
Underneath and diagonal is a photo from prom, four couples and two friends. Tyler’s arm is wrapped around at the waist of my teal dress as my shoes bring the top of my head to about his chin. There’s another individual photo of the two of us alone in Amanda’s sun-room where we met before the Limo picked us all up. Tyler’s face is forced in a fake and disappointed smile while mine reveals a slight discomfort as we align, one in front of the either, for the typical prom pose. I can’t help but laugh knowing that Chuck, our photographer and Amanda’s perverted Veteran uncle had said, “Smile if you’re getting laid tonight,” right before he snapped the photo. Tyler and I both knew that my virginity wouldn’t be sacrificed that evening for the sake of Prom but our smiles pretended anyways.
The more I scan the photos I recall myself in different instances that I didn’t know had been captured by a camera. For five or six photos there I am, either paired next to Tyler or wedged in a group of him and our friends. His mother must have dug all these up for Shane from Tyler’s room. I have no pictures of Tyler in my room, only hidden on my computer.
“Can I have everybody’s attention please? Would you all proceed to the seating area we will begin soon.” said a man holding a bible. His hair was cleanly tended, short, and gelled to stand straight upright. His hair, suit, and nearly perfected smile could have fooled me that he was just another dude in attendance, but his collar suggests his role to be more serious. I don’t think you can buy a Catholic collar just anywhere, which convinces me that he must be running the show, he’s the Priest.
I look around for Amanda but she must be sitting already so I walk through the doors to find her. But in my line of vision right next to Amanda who’s waving me over, is the casket, open and cradling Tyler’s body.
I swallow hard and try not to look. I don’t want to see, I can’t see. I clench my hands and begin to walk. Passing the casket I hold my breath in fear that he’ll smell different. That he’ll smell dead.
I’m stopped in the back of the church, between where they had arranged an extra row of chairs for people to sit behind the only ten rows of pews. There are people to my left and my right, people standing, and people squatting, but Amanda’s saved me the only seat available; the seat to the right of Tyler, behind the open lid on the opposite side of where you could see Tyler’s face. It’s the worst seat possible, unless I was to be seated in the casket.
I squeeze Amanda’s hand keeping my attention forward praying that it will be over soon.
The man in the suit rises to the podium and opens his bible, though nothing he has to say in his greeting is versed from the many books of Jesus. He just holds it for security I think, possibly even authority.
“I want to thank you all for being her today on behalf of Tyler’s family who will be entering in a moment.” he says. “Today we will be not just mourning the loss of a dear friend, a family member, or a lover, but celebrating his life.”
Lover? Am I the lover? I didn’t think of Tyler as my lover, but then what was he?
“So to begin Tyler’s family will be entering an accompanying the body to the altar. So please be with us in supporting their last journey together.”
We all rise without being told in a form of respect as I look to the left and the doors open ceremoniously. All five of his family members enter wearing denim jeans and assorted blue shirts, two of them wearing eyeglasses, and the other three under the age of fifteen. They look common and yet perfectly unique.
Tyler’s favorite color was blue.
I focus on his mother imagining how horrifying it would be to enter such a private moment with such a public demand, how she has to share losing her son with so many people, so many of whom could be just strangers to her.
The room is silent as each member forms themselves around the casket, two on each side, and his mother at the helm, to guide the bed down the middle aisle. As they proceed the silence becomes sobbing. His brothers keep it together as they walk slowly, possibly too young to process how they feel and his father sniffs deeply to hold in as many tears as he can. But his mother reclines in to her own moment. Her glasses are fogging as she holds one hand to the handle of the case and the other is stroking Tyler’s head readjusting his hair. Her breathing is deep and when she cries she lets out light moans, almost whimpers, each step increasing the anxiety that we all know she’ll have to let go.
My eyes follow each foot step imagining the horror as a mother to bury your child. Tears drench my sleeves as I clean my eyes to keep clear the sights in front of me in disbelief that he’s really died. That we’re all here because we knew Tyler and now we must say goodbye.
They reach the front and final row and begin to rotate Tyler counter clockwise to face the open lid to the audience. Then each member touches Tyler’s hands and takes a seat in the front row. His mother is last and though I expect her to stand there for hours holding on, she gently kisses his forehead and sits quickly.
Three years of being apart, one over grown heart, and a casket have left me to look at a Tyler that I no longer recognize in front of me.
He lays horizontal in a bed of white cloth surrounded by the beautifully polished mahogany casket. His hair is perfectly resisting against gravity like it’s gelled or hair spray holding it in position unnaturally. His face is bloated around his checks and neck, where I assume the water is resting in his skin. His eyes are shut swollen and dry. His arms are stretched and folded over his chest as his fingers are bloated and intertwined with one another. Someone had to manipulate his lifeless body to look this way.
But what’s horrifying me the most is that underneath the pale makeup a mortician must have applied, I can see that the real color of his skin is blue. Decaying and echoing all the blue around him, matching and disappearing beneath the blue shirt he’s dressed in. I’m vulnerably sick knowing that there is nothing there. He’s just an empty vessel, a soulless body that’s decomposing to the color blue and this is how I will always remember seeing him last, blue and without a smile on his face.
It hurts as the crying ensues thinking that I don’t know this Tyler that something has taken over his body. I cried knowing that I was mourning a different Tyler than I remembered.
The ceremony continues with words from the priest and three speeches given by first his uncle, then his therapist, and finally Shane. The words spill in and out of my ears, each one destroying any hesitation I have about Tyler’s corruption with drugs and delivering a lovable anecdote to comfort the many sounds and sobs among the crowd.
Each story forced a personal memory to pop up in to my own head. Like when his Labradoodle one day decided to use his eight year old brother’s leg as his hump toy instead of the usual brown torn teddy bear. Tyler and I laughed so hard, having to give his brother a brief anatomy lesson because he didn’t know what was so funny.
The priest regains his position at the podium after Shane is seated. “Thank you for all those loving words, and again for you all coming here today. We’re reaching the end of our service, but I would like to remind you all that there will be refreshments down stairs for the following reception. The family invites you to come join them and share your own stories and love for Tyler.”
His over thankfulness makes me feel that it’s such a burden for all of us to come here today. That it’s truly important to reassure us all that we could be doing so many other things but we chose to be here. Is it necessary that we are thanked and reassured for something that should be unquestionable and morally mandatory? That the death of someone else is such an inconvenience to the pace of our own lives?
“So now to conclude and say our final goodbyes we’ll have the family again come forward.” he says.
The family rises from the front row and walk to form a single line in front.
“Mother, Father, Brothers, please know that your beloved Tyler is safe within the hands of our lord, that his life here on Earth with us has only ended so that he can begin a new one with our lord and savior.” he says pausing to close his eyes and lower his head. Rising again he continues, “Please step forward and together we can leave Tyler to rest in peace and begin his journey with the Lord.”
Te first words that ring of some religious intent stand out, echoing loud among everything else. Tyler was never religious and to hear this man in a suit assure us that Tyler is resting in peace with our lord feels so wrong, like it’s a lie, like it’s all for show. But how else do we let someone go? How else do we walk away knowing that it wasn’t just a brutal end, a cold cut between life and death? We don’t know, and as untruthful as it is to Tyler’s character to have his peace ordained by God, it was an ease to all of us who were still living to know that it wasn’t just the end. Temporarily believing that he was religious is to know that his soul isn’t trapped in that awful box buried underneath the ground.
The ten hands lightly seal the casket queuing an alarmingly uncommon playlist of pop top forty hits, music that I can’t imagine Tyler listening too. Kanye West and Flo Rider come over the sound system. Maybe it’s the wrong playlist mixed up with a wedding party that could be taking place. But as I watch people leave, I notice that it isn’t a joke. Maybe it’s to lighten the mood or to signal the end, but for whatever reason my feet carry me to the exit to breathe in the hot fresh air.
“Oh my God what’s up with that music?” Amanda says. “What a weird ending?” This is Amanda’s fifth funeral, fourth funeral for a friend our age.
“Yeah.” I say feeling my voice box work after an hour of no use. “This whole thing seems so odd. Maybe it’s just me but it wasn’t what I expected.”
“Funerals for young people are different. I mean there always unexpected and I think it’s hard to plan for families losing someone so young so they try to include elements of youth. Maybe they thought the music would help?”
“I guess you’re right.” I don’t know what I expected or why I’m not feeling the relief I thought this would bring me. I kick at a crack in the ground with my shoe and cross my arms. “So can we leave soon I don’t really want to stay here.”
Amanda looks at me making me feel like that was the wrong thing to say.
“Yeah we can leave soon. I didn’t really want to eat their food anyway. We’ll get something to eat elsewhere.” She says. “But we should go down to the reception and at least say hi to the family.” She tosses her cigarette leaving it on the ground for me to extinguish the burning ember with my heels.
I just want to leave, to be done with it. But I shake my head in approval knowing it’s the right thing and follow Amanda. We go back in the entrance and off further to the left down some stairs to the lower level of the church. The reception is being held in a small room with bright yellow walls. The nine tables are packed with people overcrowding the space.
It smells hot and three women are removing plastic wraps on small sandwiches. There are chips, salads, fruits, and veggies lining the wall nearest to the door where the women are moving in a tango, switching ends and jobs as if preparing for a fine dinner party. They look happy and pleasantly needed in order to keep the flow of hunger mouths content. The room is filled with laughter and music. Small children are running around in casual clothing and Tyler’s brothers are ecstatic to being playing and eating with kids their own age.
I stand behind Amanda as we wait in a small line to talk to his mother who looks to have regained herself. Her glasses have been cleaned and her hair is combed. I wonder if all this joy is making her angry. It’s like people are pretending it never happened that life goes back to normal after only an hour of grieving.
I have no idea what I’ll say. I’m listening to people in front of me hoping to copy someone who does know what to say, but everything sounds cheesy and fake in my head. His mother is attentive to every person. Each story, every moment helps her build a better picture of what her son was like when she wasn’t around. Each story affirming that her son was the outstanding young gentleman she had built up in her mind. Each person showing that her son was cared for.
“Hi,” I say fumbling as my hand reaches for hers to shake. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I was a good friend of Tyler’s.”
“Hello there Rose,” she says pulling me in to give me an awkward and unexpected hug rather than simply shake my hand. “It’s good to see you, dear.”
I didn’t think she would even know who I was after three years and only having meet her four times before, but I guess I hadn’t changed that much. I was close enough to notice the freckles that underlined her eyes and crossed her nose. Her eyes were puffed and red but they didn’t look sad. They looked used but delighted that so many friends had shown up to share memories of her son. It is in this moment that I realize I am present; there is no escaping. I know someone who is now dead and that his mother associated her son with myself. I need to say something.
“I’m sorry about your loss,” I say. Damn it, the words I want to say just won’t come out right.
His mother shook her head in accordance. “Thank you.”
I have nothing else, I can’t talk without producing gibberish. I want to tell her how loving and caring her son was. How he was the one at school that could give everyone a little relief from their everyday life. That he saved me from failing physics and chemistry. That he cared more about his friends than himself. That he forced me to smile when I wasn’t because there was no reason to be sad. I want to tell her that Tyler was so nervous for prom that he poked me with the pin from the corsage. That he opened my door for me and usually held my hand with his right hand when he should have been using it to drive. I want to tell her I was sorry for not coming to dinner more, that I wasn’t trying to be a stranger and that at one point I thought I could love her son forever. If I could write it down and hand it to her I would and this moment would not be so strange. But I have no paper and I’m already here.
“Well, Rose you take care of yourself dear. It means a lot that you showed up. I hope you saw all those lovely pictures up on display. Shane did a wonderful job.”
“Oh ya, I did get to see those it was really nice.” I say.
She gives me a small smile and I force my hand to steadily meet in between her two hands as a signal of the ending of this meeting. She lets go after a few seconds so I can turn for the door and leave this hollow room.