This is the thing I’ve been putting off…the thing that I must write before my brain can move on to the rest of my incredibly aggressive to-do list. I haven’t wanted to…heck, I haven’t wanted to do much of anything. We’ve all been stumbling around the house, grief-sick and exhausted, like there are weights on every limb of our bodies we just can’t shift. Spending this time with my big sister in Vermont at the birth of Fall has been a balm for both of us, allowing us to postpone our lives in all their inevitableness.
I’ve been writing this story in my head for the last eleven days, waiting for the universe to give me the strength–or the circumstances–to make the words real. Gods know I don’t want the rest of it to be.
Saturday, September 6, 2014
(Also Known As: Alethea and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Magical Day)
I knew I was crazy. I had made the conscious decision to err on the side of insanity the minute I announced my intention to perform Josh’s eulogy. Dad worried the most on behalf of my mental state: having previously attempted to deliver the eulogy at his beloved Uncle Arch’s funeral many years ago, my father–the charismatic public speaker like whom I aspire to be–broke down so hard he was almost unable to speak.
Be it laughter or tears, we Kontises are an emotional bunch, it is no secret. But I had received the call about Josh roughly ten minutes before my hour-long panel with Sherrilyn Kenyon at Dragon Con. I cried right up until I stepped onto that stage, at which point I switched into Performance Mode and the show went on until the dealers room closed that night. If I could do that, then surely I could deliver a simple eulogy, right? Right?
It was the thought of Josh that fueled my stubborn inspiration–Josh and my sister Cherie, his mother. I needed to do this for them. Josh wasn’t quite twenty-four when Memere died last winter. He felt her death strongly–we all did–but Josh was always more sensitive when it came to the passing of a loved one. Even still, there had been much laughter in that funeral home, in no small part due to Josh. That’s just what our family does. We remember and celebrate each other.
Soteria and I wore tiaras to Memere’s funeral. I performed both readings at the church in a floor-length gold duster and stripey socks, with a purple silk flower in my hair. Josh had wholeheartedly approved, and shared Soteria’s hidden flask in our grandmother’s honor.
Mom walked in on me applying my face paint the morning of Josh’s funeral. She took a long look at my corset, glitter, silk flowers and tiara. “Good,” she said. “I’m glad you’re doing that.”
Memere would have understood my not being able to give her eulogy. She would have been totally okay with Dad and I leaving that job to the priest. But having been through that, I knew I couldn’t leave Josh’s farewell to some Catholic guy who–let’s face it–didn’t know anything about Josh at all.
Josh’s eulogy had to be irreverent. Blasphemous. Funny. It had to be delivered by a glittering fairy princess whose faith was born more of incense and candlelight than consecration and confession. Something in that ceremony needed to be about Josh, not Jesus. I needed that. My sisters and brother needed that. I was presumptuous enough to assume this same desire was shared by all whom Josh left behind.
“Are we going to laugh or cry?” Mom asked when I finished writing my essay.
“Both,” I said. “But I’m prepared for anything. I’m prepared for nothing at all. If I can get even one laugh out of this, I’ll consider it a success.”
“Be careful,” Dad counseled. “Making people laugh at a funeral is virtually impossible.”
I didn’t sleep much the night before. None of us did. We hadn’t slept well since the news. In the very early morning of August 31, Josh had come home from a raucous night out with the boys, gone to sleep, and never woken up.
I checked the Sleep Tracker app on my phone: I’d had a raucous night, too, as one does at Dragon Con. I didn’t go to bed until after 3am. By all accounts, Josh had been asleep by 2:30. That night, I outpartied my nephew.
I’m not sure any of us will sleep well again.
I may have forced myself to take a couple bites of protein bar that morning…maybe not…I don’t remember. What I do remember is looking at the clock. Five hours, and this will all be over. Three hours, and this will all be over. One hour, and this will all be over.
Performance anxiety kept the emotions at bay. The eulogy came first in the service, which was tough. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to keep it together afterward. It’s not like I had done this before. Also, I had a limit of five minutes. The priest had been adamant. He pulled me aside to remind me of this before the service, and I’d showed him the pages. My essay was a little over 600 words. In my experience that translated to four and a half minutes at most, undoubtedly less…barring a total emotional breakdown.
“It’s not up to me,” he said, “this is mandated by the diocese.”
On the plane from Florida the night before, I’d had a waking-dream about Josh’s other grandmother who passed away in 2010. My family is lousy with fortune tellers and vision dreamers–I am not one of them. I don’t dream of dead people; they leave me and my psycho psyche alone (maybe because they know I’d blog about it). I knew Sito was gone, but in my airplane-meditative state I suddenly looked forward to seeing her at her house after the funeral. She found me in the front room full of knick-knacks, most of which I’d helped unpack when the Jarvis family had moved in. She wore a yellow and orange flowered muumuu (though royal blue was her usual color). This larger-than-life force of nature opened her arms and hugged me and told me that the eulogy was perfect.
So I listened to this stern priest tell me these Rules of the Catholic Church, but inside I was thinking, “If Lucille Jarvis gave her blessing to this eulogy, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to stop it now, dude.”
Besides, Victoria had already promised to body-check the priest if he so much as looked like he was approaching the pulpit before I was finished.
Finally, the church bells chimed eleven. Four of Josh’s friends carried the ark containing the urn, and we followed behind. I slid in on the end of the second-row pew, behind Cherie and Billy (my brother-in-law) and next to Victoria and Danny (Billy’s brother). I tried not to crush my giant Monsters Inc box of tissues beneath my trembling fingers. After an incredibly short amount of time, the priest called my name and invited me up to deliver the eulogy.
I stood up and stepped forward, though I had no idea where to go. I paused, and the priest indicated a podium way behind the altar, almost in the back of the church, so far away from my family that I could barely see them. Certainly I wouldn’t be able to hear them. But as long as they heard me, I supposed it didn’t matter. I set my box of tissues on the podium and unfolded my essay, now covered with colorful editorial scribbles.
“Hello,” I said into the microphone, because you always say something inane into the microphone to make sure it’s working. It was working.
“I was going to start by asking forgiveness for this,” I said, indicating the crucifix hanging above the altar between me and the other mourners. “I figure this is the best place to do that. So here goes. The title of my essay is, ‘Dammit, Josh.'”
If anyone chuckled at the title, I didn’t hear them. It was okay. I went on. There might have been a sound after the line about Billy picking his nose…but if not, that was okay, too. I went on. I spoke slowly and carefully, constantly shutting down my emotions so that I could concentrate on every word. And when I got to “…a Nashville strip club…” the entire church burst out laughing. I know, because I heard them, all the way in the back.
I almost lost it before the last paragraph, but that worked too. I pointed up to the ceiling and said, “Dammit, Josh,” then took a deep breath and delivered my last lines without so much as a hitch. Sito had been right. It was perfect.
The hardest part was the silence. There is no clapping or cheering at a funeral. I stood there for a moment, almost wishing the priest had been on hand to escort me from the podium. But it was just me up there. I had put myself on that stage; I could exit the same way. I let my hand brush the wood of the ark before sinking back down into the corner of my designated pew.
If I met Cherie’s eyes, I don’t remember it. I may have touched Billy’s shoulder…I don’t really remember that either. No one hugged me or said anything, which was good. I stared at the top of my tissue box, frozen in time, careful to let nothing damage my calm while I built my emotional guard back up. And then Danny reached out to squeeze my hand.
We did not look at each other. We didn’t need to. My sister and Danny’s brother had been together most of our natural lives–I was five and Danny was seven when Cherie and Billy tied the knot thirty-three years ago. We might not have stayed super-close over the years, but that didn’t change the fact that we’d known each other forever. Right then, I needed that hand–that connection with my family–no more, and no less. Danny let go, and I went back to clutching my tissue box for the remainder of the ceremony.
I performed a reading after that as well. I stumbled over a word. Didn’t matter which one.
If I cried again, I don’t remember it.
I performed the requisite Catholic calisthenics–sitting, standing, kneeling, standing, sitting–and didn’t touch another person until the “Peace be with you” bit. (I may have been raised Greek Orthodox, but I attended mass with Memere enough times to remember the basics.) I hugged Cherie and Billy, Danny and Victoria, my brother West.
When I faced forward again, I saw that the priest had come to shake hands with Alana (my niece, Josh’s sister), Cherie and Billy. To each of them he said, “Peace be with you.” Then he met my eyes, sort of pointed and waggled his finger, said nothing, and turned away.
Alana and I looked at each other with wide eyes. What was that? Cherie said later that he’d done the same thing to Diane–Danny and Billy’s sister–because she had also performed a reading. Alana and I got a different vibe entirely–more of a cross between a scolding and a futile prayer for my immortal soul. I was both amused by and totally fine with that.
The priest lit incense and walked around the ark and urn. Still no tears. I remember going through dozens of tissues during Memere’s funeral–shouldn’t I have been bawling right now? I just didn’t feel like it. In fact, I mostly felt like laughing my butt off. Josh would have found so much of this whole thing ridiculous.
When the priest spoke of angels meeting Josh and escorting him to heaven, I thought, “I at least hope they look like Victoria’s Secret angels.” I bit my lips together and swallowed hard to prevent that particular round of church giggles.
And then it was over. I filed out behind everyone else–all these people arm in arm with someone to cling to. I took a quick step forward and took Caleb’s elbow. Poor Caleb…almost sixteen and having to go through all of this. He’d lived with Josh most of his life–Josh had only left home a few months ago for this new job in Tennessee. I snuggled into Caleb’s shoulder, thoroughly covering his black suit in glitter.
Victoria helped out with that, too.
We all went back to Sito’s house on Lake Champlain–we kids called it “camp” back before there was a huge house there–where Billy’s Lebanese family laid out quite a spread, including kibbeh (both cooked and raw) and spanakopita, provided by our godfather Nectar.
Mom and Dad and I had transported a bunch of the flowers in our rental car, and some friends helped us carry them into the house. As I moved to shut the trunk, I noticed that a white rosebud had fallen out of an arrangement–the stem was short enough, so I stuck it into my hair amidst the silk petals there. I have no idea what it looked like. I didn’t care.
I didn’t eat anything. I didn’t speak much more. I just felt sort of floaty and numb. I went into the backyard and sat in a chair by the water, looking out over the lake where I’d spent so many of my summers. Summers before Josh. People came by to thank me for the eulogy. Lots of people.
I sat there until it started raining, then moved inside and hid in corners where I didn’t have to talk. I found a good spot in the kitchen–good until the trash needed to be emptied and the drawer behind me ransacked for a spatula with which to serve the cake. At that point, Danny led me out to the garage, where his brothers and father escorted departing guests to their cars beneath borrowed umbrellas. The fresh air was nice. The not talking was better.
Somehow, I made it back into the kitchen, sitting at the table where my little sister ate her way through an entire bowl of movie popcorn and Mom sipped at her contraband tequila. “Are your friends in that band still playing today?” Mom asked. “You should go. Take Caleb and Cole. I bet they’d love to go with you.”
See…the universe does this thing to me where horrible things happen in the best way possible. When I got the call about Josh there was still another day of Dragon Con left, but it was my last day of scheduled panels. Mom didn’t want me driving home to Florida through the night, but that was okay too. I was surrounded by friends, some of whom had been holding me together since Christmas, when the universe started using me as a punching bag and significant pieces of my life had begun flying apart. I was in a cocoon of unconditional love, and free to leave first thing in the morning.
My little sister, as it happens, was just finishing up a job in New York. Instead of flying back to Charleston, I told her to just go straight to Burlington–she’d end up having to connect through New York anyway, in the long run. Our brother West just so happened to be visiting my parents for Labor Day weekend, so none of them were alone when they got the news. Mom, Dad, West and I caught a flight to Burlington–a straight shot from the little airport in Sanford–and arrived just in time for the visitation.
On top of all that, I had checked to see if my friends in the Adam Ezra Group were playing in the area that weekend. I hadn’t seen them since my birthday–crazy, brief, traumatic event that it was–and they rarely played in Florida. After the move, I wondered if I would ever see them again.
Not only were the Adam Ezra Group playing in New England that weekend, they were playing in Burlington…the afternoon of the funeral…at a festival open to all ages…in a park that was literally down the street from the house on the lake.
I had bought two tickets, but I wasn’t sure I should go…or that anyone would want to come with me. Mom made that decision for me. She rounded up Caleb and Cole and West, and we all went to the concert in the rain.
Is the concert still on? I texted to Adam.
yup! Very wet. u doing ok?
I’m coming to see you. Bringing my brother & nephews.
It took us forever to find a parking space, but we managed it. We walked around the fence to the covered table set up for ticket sales–I felt terrible for the organizers and the poor girls volunteering at this cold, wet table. The Spreading Light festival has its roots in mental health and suicide awareness, a cause about which I feel especially strong, and this weather was tanking their attendance.
My fingers shook as I dug through my tiny little purse searching for the ticket receipt–I kept pulling out the eulogy and the reading. The tent was dripping rain down my back and I was completely soaked, not that I felt much of anything. Finally, I yanked everything out of the purse and set it on the table. “Sorry,” I told the girls. “We just came from a funeral. The receipt is in here somewhere. I’m just a little out of it.” They sweetly expressed their condolences as I handed over the receipt and paid for Caleb and Cole. They offered us all trash bags as makeshift ponchos.
The boys took the “ponchos” and left me the umbrella. The four of us made quite the spectacle as I passed out wristbands and helped the boys fashion their trash bags into suitable concert wear. In the end, everyone was laughing. That’s just what our family does.
We walked out onto the grass before the band shell–the opening band was still playing. I handed the umbrella to Caleb and asked the boys to wait a moment…then I walked over to where Turtle was talking to some people beneath another umbrella. I quietly stood before him with a smile until he noticed me.
“Oh my god,” he said, “you’re here.” And he swept me up into a giant bear hug.
That is when I cried.
I introduced Turtle to the boys…and then Corinna…and then Josh Gold, who each found me to share love and hugs. I kept an eye out for Adam, but I knew their set would be starting soon, so I didn’t really expect to see him. There would be time enough afterward. West and Cole and Caleb and I took our places in the rainy grass, front and center.
There was a tap on my shoulder. “Excuse me,” said the girl from the ticket table. “We wanted to give you this because we know you’re having a hard day.” She handed me a beautiful sunflower. I thanked her graciously and threaded it through my purse loop so it wouldn’t get smashed. Adam launched into the first song and I started the set with a smile.
I did cry again, though, a couple of times. The first was during the spoken word portion of “Burn Brightly,” which Adam alters to fit each performance, so the song is always unique. He said a lot of kind words about the Spreading Light festival, and all the Vermonters out in the audience dancing barefoot in the rain, and when he spoke about illness and suicide and the loved ones we’ve lost…well, yeah, I lost it a little bit.
I covered my mouth with my hand–Corinna and I had been smiling at each other most of the set, and I didn’t want her to see me break down while she was performing. One of the dancers saw me, though, a barefoot woman with short hair and a bright green shirt.
“Can I give you a hug?” she asked. I opened my arms.
“Thank you,” I said into her hair, and then she went back to dancing.
I looked up to see Corinna smiling brightly at me again…and I smiled back.
The second time I cried was when Adam dedicated a song to us. Adam’s dedicated a lot of songs to me in the years we’ve known each other. It’s never the same thing–at Dragon Con last year it was “Half a Hero.” On my birthday it was “Taking Off.” This time it was “The Toast.”
And this time, I wasn’t the only one crying.
None of the band had ever met my nephew, but they could not have played a more perfect song to his memory. I hugged Caleb and wept, but I knew it was okay. I saw Cole wipe his eyes and West blow his nose. What I didn’t realize at the time was that West had recorded the whole song on his mp3 player. He played it back for Cherie the next morning at breakfast and I cried all over again. West said that when the song ended, two seagulls came soaring over the band shell and executed a crossover maneuver worthy of the Blue Angels. I’m sorry I missed it…but I’m glad he didn’t.
Directly after “The Toast,” the band played a censored version of “The Devil Came Up to Boston,” which had everyone laughing again. I love that song. Josh would have loved it, too.
It was a long set, which made me happy–I only hoped my boys were enjoying it as well. It had stopped raining, and we had all dried up considerably, but they’d had the same long day I had. Asking them to stand up for two hours in the cold to listen to a band they’d never heard of before…for some people, that would have been asking too much.
A silly thought, in hindsight. The people who love me are extraordinary, so much more than “some people.”
As they’ve done in the past, Adam and the rest of the band came out of the band shell to play the last two songs on the grass with us, acoustic style. They did this in DC, the first time I ever saw them, and they bowled me over by playing a cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” They played that song again, here, for the finale, and invited everyone on the grass to sing along. Caleb and Cole were too young to know the words, but West and I sang right along with the crowd.
I’ve been to a lot of Adam Ezra concerts. This crowd had the best singers I’ve ever heard. We were a choir of strangers, repeatedly petitioning the heavens to take us home, to the place we belonged.
I stood right beside Adam during the acoustic set. He didn’t look at me and I didn’t approach him–he was in Performance Mode, and I was not about to burst that bubble. Whether or not he heard me singing, he knew I was there.
After the last address to the crowd, after the last thank you, the moment the set was officially over and done with, Adam looked right at me…and winked.
Adam and the band then headed directly to the merchandise table. I turned back to my boys, cautiously awaiting their reaction.
“That was way better than church,” said Cole.
Love that kid. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
West was blown away as well and gratefully so–his last concert experience had been with Josh. And as it turned out, this show was Caleb’s first concert ever. Talk about the Cool Aunt Award. I promised that I would buy them all CDs and took them up to the merchandise table (once the substantial line had died down a bit) to meet the band all over again. I shamelessly collected another round of hugs…including my long-awaited promised one from Adam.
I stood patiently until Adam bid a new fan farewell, and then I jumped into his arms. I don’t remember what it was he said then, but I remember that it made me laugh out loud.
“Figures,” I said. “Hugging Turtle makes me cry, and you make me laugh.”
But then, that’s just what our family does.
There was no one left at the house on Lake Champlain by the time we returned, so Cole drove us all back to Morrisville. We talked about the band and told lots of stories. Cole popped his new CD into the player. I sat back in the seat and looked at my sunflower, still beautiful and unsmashed, and I thought about just how frightful and amazing this day had been. I remembered the rosebud in my hair–undoubtedly limp and wilted now–and I reached up to pull it out. Turns out, it wasn’t dead at all.
It had bloomed.
Despite the cold and the rain and everything else, it had bloomed.