Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Short Story "Ghost Pictures"

Here is a short essay I wrote for a contest that I did not win, but still think is pretty good. It is a rare glimpse of my non-fiction/essayist side. Let me know your thoughts, if you'd like to share.

Lives in Pictures
Photos of Ghosts are usually supernatural occurrences, something you find in a dusty tome at a used book store. The pages are yellowing, the copyright from thirty years ago, the price marked down several times. You could take the book home for a dollar and no one would mind. I think I would prefer to talk about those kinds of photos—to go on a tangent about non-corporeal friends in dreams, revisiting their hometowns and learning lessons and having adventures—but that’s not what I’ve got on my mind.

Up until several weeks ago, I had only been to four funerals in the twenty three years that I’ve been wandering this earth, but in the past two weeks that number almost doubled. It started with a car accident.
I found myself standing in a funeral home, staring at photos of a boy my own age. I had just started getting to know him; he was a friend of a friend who I met at Comic-con two Octobers ago. We talked online and occasionally when we crossed paths. It was the sort of friendship where, even though we didn’t know each other very well, our conversations were always easy and honest.

He was twenty one. The weird part was how normal it had been, no one was drunk, no one was texting, nothing peculiar was going on. It was a bunch of guys in a car who were driving, and then they weren’t. The driver had a concussion, and I guess the other passenger was pretty hurt, but Steve was in the backseat and took the brunt of the impact when the car hit a tree.

The lobby of the funeral home was filled with collages of pictures; there must have been hundreds of photos among them. There was a program with pictures in it, and quotes from the Beatles and Hans Christian Anderson, all surrounding photos of Steve. “Where words fail, music speaks” was written in large, script letters.

My roommate and I went to the memorial together. He was much closer with Steve than I had been, but still not super tight. We didn’t even know what his parents looked like, or any of his family for that matter. We didn’t know who to offer condolences to. All we had was the maze of photographs around which to navigate. The whole room was filled with an awkward sadness that increased with every photo. I could tell my roommate and I had that same, heavy rock in our stomachs, full of regret and a feeling that we should have gotten to know Steve a little better while we still had the chance. We didn’t even know what the E. stood for in the middle of his name. Finally, we found a photo of Steve when he was a kid, dressed in full Anakin Skywalker regalia, wielding a toy lightsaber. I have never simultaneously burst into laughter and tears at the same time before. The day got a little easier from there.

Since then I’ve been to two more funerals, and at each one I’ve spent more time thinking about what my own funeral will be like. At Steve’s, there was Beatles music playing, and his flowers were in the shape of a giant guitar. My Aunt Beth’s funeral, earlier this week, was a classic church event with reminders to think of Jesus and a pastor on a piano. I want Main Street Electrical Parade played at mine, and flowers in the most vibrant shades of pink, and tea served in fancy china and macaroni and cheese in huge casserole dishes. I want it to be the kind of thing where people take pictures, where memories keep getting made instead of being put on pause.

I didn’t want to look at my Aunt Beth’s pictures, which were on big white boards on either side of her casket. Steve’s pictures were in a different room from his casket, which was closed and surrounded by flowers, guitars, and his favorite jacket. I wish my Aunt’s had been somewhere different. Caskets—open or not—provide an undeniable reminder that this person you once knew, animated and excited and breathing, is no longer any of those things—neither will they ever be again. The photos at least are a reminder of how a person was when you knew them. In a casket, they’re a noun, but in photos, they get to keep being a verb. Steve is trick or treating. Beth is making dinner. Steve is playing guitar. Beth is laughing.

In the picture room, you could hear the Beatles better than in the other one; they promised us that the sun was coming. The song made me smile, and wonder if maybe that’s what Steve heard while he was waiting to go. If anyone could convince him It Was Alright, it would have been the Beatles. We made our way around the room, and as he got older in the photos, it started to feel like Steve was THERE. In a lot of his pictures, he had the widest smile, eyes closed, thumbs up. Here was the Steve we knew, as happy to see us as ever, glad we could make it, ready to cheer us up. It felt wrong to be sad, like if Steve could smile, then dammit so could we.

The last funeral I had been to before Steve’s was a friend of mine’s Stepdad. There were pictures there, too, but of a life well-lived. Here, where there should have been a board with college graduation photos, weddings, children, the old and grey version of Steve, here there was nothing. Just the room with the casket. I kept walking in circles, avoiding the casket room, and going back to the Anakin picture, because it made me want to smile again. I noticed pictures from Comic-con, pictures where I was literally just out of the frame, and those made my stomach churn. We were there together for the second time this past October. We had talked about our journalism jobs, how we loved working in the video game industry, how he wanted to work for the same big name blog where I had landed an internship the past summer. It made me almost glad when, at Aunt Beth’s funeral, I did not recognize a single one of the photos. I hadn’t been on the edge of getting to know her, and more than that she, like my friend’s Stepdad, had had enough time for a complete story to be told through her photos.

I never know how to feel at funerals, I’ve always been one of those they’re in a better place people. Or else I’m at a funeral for someone who I didn’t know well in life, and so the hole left behind for me is more about the other people I love being upset. That was the position I found myself in on Friday, when I was once again standing in a funeral home, wearing an outfit I typically reserve for House Managing and Job Interviews. Here there was a double-edged sword, because the man in the casket had been older, but the family he left behind was painfully young. I was there to support my sister’s friends, a Junior and Sophomore in high school, who had just lost their father. In this case, I had never met the man who had passed, but I recognized a handful of the younger faces. It should have felt like routine at this point; sign the guest book, hugs to those I recognize, sorry for your loss, take a prayer card, mingle, leave. Real life is never that formulaic. Each situation was different and I was stuck in that awkward in-between place again, not knowing what to say or do. The kids took me around the room, showing me photos they loved and laughing at Mr. Cassell’s mustache in the ‘70s. I had never met their now-widowed mother, but they introduced me. Upon meeting me, Mrs. Cassell gave me a huge hug and asked if I was alright. I had been in the hospital following a ruptured appendix a few weeks before, and she knew about the situation through my parents’ facebooks.

It reminded again of Steve. His parents were standing by the casket as everyone lined up around the room, offering their condolences one by one. When my roommate and I got up to the front of the line, we each shook Steve’s mom and dad’s hands. When I told his mother I had only known Steve for a short time, she squeezed me tight and thanked me for coming. His father laughingly told me about how much Steve loved playing and talking about video games, and how much he enjoyed his trips into the city for Comic-Con. I was confused by this first experience, and again when my Aunt Beth’s husband, my Uncle Ted, greeted my sister and I by laughing that we were getting to miss school for a day. By the time I was with the Cassells, it made perfect sense. They felt the same way I did—the same way I had at my Pop-Pop’s funeral. That is to say, they didn’t want to be sad anymore than anyone else did. They wanted to remember their loved ones as verbs, not nouns. The pictures started making more and more sense, too.

My Dad lost his mom when he was still in college, so photos of her have always been a little ghostly. I can’t tell which is worse, or maybe they’re two different, equally terrible things—to be the child or the parent standing in that room, shaking hands and hugging guest after guest. And what of the husbands and wives? The kids at Mr. Cassell’s wake were holding it together rather splendidly. They were all concerned about my appendix, scolding me for letting it get that bad before I went to the hospital and making sure I was taking care of myself.  I wondered how my Dad had felt when he was in that position, whether he had walked his friends through photos of his mom on boats, on vacation, holding him when he was a baby. He doesn’t talk about his mother very often, many of the stories I get about her come from my Great-Gram—her mother—who loves telling stories that keep Grandma Ro alive in so many different stages of her life. I wonder who Steve’s parents will tell his stories to.

I keep coming back to the age issue. We are young, and a lot of people say that at different parts of their lives, but we are in a very tricky place on our lifeline. Babies and small kids who die—their tragedy lies in the fact that their lives haven’t even started. Older folks, the tragedy is usually in the pain that they’re in before they die rather than the dying itself. I remember feeling a sigh of relief when my Pop-Pop passed away. He had been in so much pain, in so many ways, for the last few years of his life. Steve had been in pain, too, but for a few hours. That’s where I keep tripping when I think about him, when I think about all those photos that will never get taken and the songs he’ll never learn to play on his guitar.  He didn’t have time to think about death, or even to think about life. My Aunt Beth was diagnosed with melanoma a little over a year ago. Mr. Cassell had been in and out of hospitals for over a decade. Steve, however, only had the time between the accident and his death—a total of two hours—and he was unconscious for all of it.

It’s like almost being on the cusp of something—knowing there’s some big thing or even many big things right around the corner and only being able to bide your time until they happen. It’s like getting to the second to last note of a symphony and then the sound cuts out. It’s unsettling. There’s a weird dissonance waiting for its resolution. If you’re older, or if you know it’s coming, then the dying is that last note. Everything is wrapped up, you can drive home and think about the symphony, but you’re not aching for another movement. Maybe you wish you could hear the whole thing again, but you know that what you’ve witnessed is a complete work.
Steve’s parents assured us that his song may have been short, but it was wonderful while it lasted. His mother promised us that his life had been full and fantastic because Steve wouldn’t have it any other way—and because he had friends who made sure it stayed that way.

Several weeks ago, when Aunt Beth was told that she had a few days left, her family began posting photos all over facebook in “tribute” albums. They also started a carepages page when she was first diagnosed, which they used to update the whole family at once regarding her health status. The site emails you when there is a news update. I wasn’t particularly fond of either of these processes. I was already staring at the message Steve had sent me which would now never get answered. Steve’s facebook page was full of friends and acquaintances who were posting on his wall as though they expected a response. Obviously no one really did, but if the photos at the funeral home hadn’t felt eerie enough this felt downright macabre. Some of these were messages of love, some of regret, some funny posts about one thing or another that Steve would have really liked. This stood in stark contrast to Aunt Beth’s page, where the mood was solemn and defeated. And she was still alive. Sick, but alive.

Everyone grieves differently, but this felt premature to me.

Three weeks later and I’m stuck thinking about my own funeral again, what my facebook page would look like if I never updated it. I keep seeing Steve’s smiling face, thumbs up, urging us to keep up the laughing and getting to know each other better on his behalf. I liked getting to know each of these people through their photos. I liked the Beatles music, and the flowers shaped like a guitar. I liked the garden theme for my Aunt Beth—an avid gardener while she was still a verb. I liked the way the Cassell kids told their stories and hugged me and laughed at their Dad’s out-dated hair styles.

If I am to be survived by photos of my life, then let it be one filled with verbs and told by loved ones, and, more than anything else, let it resolve into something beautiful.

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