Wave Goodbye

They file into the cramped foyer one by one, assaulted by the gust of hot air from the register overhead and brushing a light dusting of snow from their overcoat, doing their best to calibrate their expression to meet the mood in the room.

Brief hugs and greetings as you struggle to locate their name, relationship and some relevant tidbit of personal information in the distant, dusty recesses of your brain. A task normally quite challenging for someone you met once or twice twenty years prior, made all the more difficult by current preoccupations that surge and recede on their own, outside your control, seemingly at random.

Shake their hand. Say thanks. Listen.

Soon the the old Victorian has started to fill up. A low buzz of murmurs and whispers bounces of the two hundred year old oak floor, only mildly subdued by the tattered oriental runner in the entrance hall, now stained with the murky runoff of slush melt smuggle inside in the treadwork of everyone’s boots. A tricky affair choosing the right footwear; something that can tolerate the winter outside, but appropriate for the occasion.

A slow transition from greeter to host occurs. Time to move away from the door and deeper into the house. To make rounds before taking up a position next to dad.

Shake their hand. Say thanks. Listen.

Moving around each room, slowly, deliberately, takes more effort than expected.

What is the right time to speak with someone? How long to devote to each friend or group of second cousins? Is it in fact even necessary to visit with every last individual? When to smile? When to stay straight-faced? Is laughing okay?

There’s no blueprint for this. No experience to fall back on.

Shake their hand. Say thanks. Listen.

Sure, there have been other occasions, but always from the opposite side, as an attendee not the attendant. Similar but fundamentally opposite roles.

Strangely though, this time it is even more about them. Their thoughts, their feelings, their words.

This does not match expectations. What of my thoughts, my feelings, my words?

Nope. Gotta bury those. Have to put on a brave face, and make sure everyone gets heard. They’re not here for me, or for dad. They are here for themselves. It is not selfish … well maybe it is. It is hard to say.

Shake their hand. Say thanks. Listen.

Stories are shared. Anecdotes drummed up. Experiences from long ago that add color and dimension to a cursory sketch of a person. Overwhelmingly they are happy, cheerful stories, whether to fight off the blunt reality of the situation or to rewrite history in the most positive light. To preserve a memory that, when revisited, brings a smile to faces increasingly worn by the march of time and the stress of daily life.

These are their stories. These are their experiences. These are their memories.

It is important, for them, to keep these alive. To speak them out loud and to share them so that the person they would like to remember continues to live on in the minds of all those in the room.

That person does not exist. Never existed. That person is a fiction. An important one, but a fiction nonetheless.

That person is not mine.

Shake their hand. Say thanks. Listen.

They were not there for the smiles. The laughs and inside jokes. The time we built a pinewood derby car together. The time we stayed up late and watched a scary movie for the first time. The time I learned how to pan fry chicken in peanut oil, getting a nice golden crust on the outside while keeping the inside moist and tender. The time we had pasta on the floor by the fireplace before going back to the hospital to visit a newborn little brother. The time we brought home a little mutt, no bigger than a gerbil, that grew up alongside that baby brother until I headed off to college, when, feeling my prolonged absence for the first time in over a dozen years, he fell into sadness and depression and died a few months later.

They were not there when we buried him in the backyard.

They were not there when he picked me up early from my first “kissing party,” before everyone had gotten to the arbitrarily designated point when they’d timidly approach the person they were there with. They weren’t there when he asked when I had started smoking, or when we shared a smoke together, or when he bought me a carton of cigarettes or a bottle of booze.

They were not there for the yelling, when all I wanted was a hug, and was met instead with blank stares and turned backs.

They were not there for all the sporting events that he couldn’t attend. For all the school performances where mom sat alone in the audience. Or the times I sat alone while friends celebrated with their dads at a pizza party. Or for ice cream in the heat of summer like all the other fathers and sons that had ridden their bikes to the local creamery. They were not there for the relentless questions about achievement and performance, the lessons on hard work, the “try harders” and the “why can’t yous?” They were not there when mom walked out of a moving car because she had finally had enough. They were not there when he broke down the bedroom door in a fit of rage.

They were not there for the highs, or for the lows.

They have no idea who he really was. They only knew bits and pieces. They only knew what he wanted them to know. What he wanted them to see.

They were not there.

Shake their hand. Say thanks. Listen.

Jesus. Fucking. Christ! Can you people not see what he was! He was not a shiny, happy, perfect son-of-a-bitch. He was flawed, broken. Like you. Like me. He was imperfect. Yet despite the evidence, I find them all believing otherwise.

I haven’t wanted a smoke so badly in my entire life. To go outside. To feel the bitter January New England chill on my face. To get the hell out of this nightmare situation where everyone replays their memories like its the only grainy TV rerun available on two hundred different channels, full of false nostalgia.

I wish they’d all shut the fuck up and we could be done with this arbitrarily mandatory ritual that feels so artificial, so contrived.

I wish they all could have known the man I knew.

That is not what today is about though. Today is about them. Today is about the man they knew. Today, the man they thought they knew is the man he was.

Today is not about loss. Today is about retention.

Today is about holding on. Today is about preserving memories.

Today is a time capsule we all pour our hearts and minds into, so that we can open it later when we need help recalling the man I proudly called dad.

Today is about the future, not the past.

Shake their hand. Say thanks. Wave goodbye.

Send them on their way. Another hug. Coats back on. Back out into the cold for a brief minute before hopping into the car for a long drive back home, or to the Motel 6 out on 95 for the night.

Say thanks, one last time, then wave goodbye.

Let them go.

Say thanks, one last time.

Let him go.