"Blessed be death, that cuts in marble/What would have sung to dust!"
Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Keen," The Harp Weaver and other Poems, (1923)
As he stood there in front of me, tall and firm and still younger than he had the right to be after so much, all I could think about was his grandmother. I know you think that was inevitable. I always said he reminded me of her so very much, but he was a child when I said that. A child. And now he was a man, and not a very young man after all. He was thirty. Or thirty-one. I wasnít sure which, but still and all, not young.
And speaking of "not young" there was no one at the funeral "not younger" than me. I was eighty-two. Max was thirty or so. His parents, laid together, side by side in their coffins, were in their sixties. I was the survivor, the one who lived, the one who had always lived, outlived lovers, loved-ones, the beloved of a lifetime.
Max was sitting between two women, his older sister Brianna who resembled her father now, much more than her mother or her mother, my best beloved lover. She looked like him, much more than Max did, more like Rob. He had been a good looking man, handsome and with strong, definitive features. Brianna looked a lot like him. Her chin was firm and had that same little uplift. Her eyes were wideset and surrounded her strong, virile nose. She made the look her own, made it pretty, but you could still definitely see her father in that nose, chin and eyes. She was being strong, too, the way he would have been. There were no tears in her eyes, but her arm was hard and rigid, her fingers clasped, hand to hand, around Maxís arm. Somehow, from the looks, the very different looks, on their two faces, it appeared that she was supporting him, his emotions, his loss.
The woman on the other side of him was Freddy, naturally, that same old childhood girlfriend I remembered so well. She was clutching his other arm, but instead of giving him support she was stealing away whatever she could of his inner strength. I wanted to walk over and slap her, remove her hand from his arm and take her place. I wanted to help somehow. I mean, I already did feel guilty about their deaths. After all, it had happened at my apartment. They were dead on my watch. Lainieís girl, Lana, and her sweet husband, the man who helped me find Susanne, were dead and I had been watching them, saw it happen, failed to save them.
Really, there was nothing I could have done. Instantaneous stuff bears no interference from bystanders. Thatís what I was, again, a bystander. I was someone who let things happen around him, in front of him, and never interfered. A naturalist in the real sense of that word. What happened naturally happened. I was without power, without choice, without any reasonable options. I was powerless. As usual.
Susanne was sitting next to me, tugging my sleeve, urging me to sit also. I felt unable to sit at this funeral. I felt totally out of place here. Guilty. Guilty as not charged, your honor. Guilty.
I looked down at my wife and gave her an encouraging smile, then slowly removed her fingers from my wrist. I unpealed them, one by one. Then I let her hand loose and let it drop into her own lap. She turned away from me, just turned her head and let me stand there, isolated and alone. The funeral director was speaking now, saying innocuous things that meant very little. He had been speaking for a long time and when he finally stopped and nodded in Maxís direction and then stepped down off the dais, I felt a sudden clutch at my throat and a rapid turn at my stomach. Max was going to speak.
He stood up and turned and kissed his sister. He had both of her hands in his own and he moved carefully, so as not to harm her in any way. He never turned his back on her, but moved step by step, backwards toward the podium. And then he was there. Suddenly there. He cleared his throat, smiled, frowned, started to tear up, Iím certain, but held himself together as a man would, then cleared his throat again.
"Thank you all for coming," he said. "My sister and I are very grateful that so many people who knew our parents thought enough of them to come out today. Brianna and I have been living in England and we just flew in this morning, on the red-eye flight, so weíre not very prepared, not very sober or sane either, are we, honey? Well, weíre pleased youíre here. I wanted to talk about them, about Lana and about Rob, my parents. You may think you knew them, but you didnít. You couldnít. These were people no one knew very well, no matter how much or for how long you knew them. They were private people. They lived inside the walls of their apartment and they only really lived when they were alone together. Not with you. Not with Brianna and certainly not with me."
I almost cried when he said that. What he said about them, and us in relation to them, was how Iíd felt when Lainie had died. Exactly how Iíd felt. Exactly.
"I want to paint a picture for you, if I can and I can only try, of who they really were for each other. Lana had her career and she gave it up when she married him, actually when she met him, not when they married. He became the center of her world and what he wanted was what she gave him. It was sort of like centrifugal force in reverse, really. His spin in the world drew her in instead of throwing her outward. No matter how fast he spinned, she was always coming closer and closer to his heart. That was how their love for each other worked. Rob always attracted her closer to him and she danced only for him, spun in those ever tightening circles just for him. It was the sort of love affair that couldnít die, because the attraction was one of speed and direction and an unfailing intent to remain close."
ĎOh, God, Lainie,í I thought. That had been her hold on me and I had somehow managed to plummet out of the orbit we had established. How different things might have been if I had just trusted her a bit more than I had. There would have been no Tooie, no Susanne, no corrupted morals, no boys. It would have been Lainie and Vin. Vin and Lainie. I would have been that moon drawn in by the force that was my world.
"As for Rob, well, any of you who knew him knew that there was no one else for him but my mother. I donít think he ever looked at another woman seriously. Not professionally, not personally. He did what he needed to do to make a living and to support us all, but no other woman played a part in his life. Not ever."
Brianna stood up and walked slowly to the podium where Max was speaking. She looked strong, she looked fine. She moved to stand at his side and she put her arm around his waist. For a moment they looked like their parents, like Lana and Rob, except that Max looked like her and Brianna like him.
"My sister and I want you to remember them the way we do. We want you to remember Lana and Rob in the way they would want to be remembered. They were the folks next door. They were the family unit that never split, never cracked, never altered in any way. In the world of middle American values they were the parents from Hell."
"They were, indeed," Brianna said nodding her head gently.
"He was the college kid with the career and she was the happy homemaker, baking pies, washing dishes, wearing an apron," Max continued. "They took care of their offspring..."
"Us," Brianna said grinning.
"...guiding us to our own careers, hoping that weíd follow in the family business, in their footsteps somehow..."
"Which we have," Brianna added.
"...and making our marks in that special world of theirs."
"What we have done in our lives reflects well on theirs, I think," Brianna said. "As they would have no regrets about their decisions, we have none about ours. As they would cherish the good times, so do my brother and me. As they might greet the difficult times, we do likewise. We are their children. We are their legacy."
"We are their children," Max echoed her. "We are their legacy."
They kissed each other gently, delicately, the way devoted siblings would, and they went, hand-in-hand, back to their front row seats. I donít think there was a dry eye in the house. I was certainly weeping, crying those silent tears that come to the elderly when the present subsumes the past, making everything the same thing, making all the losses the same loss.
Susanne reached up for me again, took my hand and gently used my solid frame to bolster her more delicate one as she stood up and moved her body over to become as one with mine. Our fingers clenched tightly; our arms were linked by the peculiar fit that two arms leaning hard against one another can assume. Our shoulders touched and we walked forward, our inner legs together, our outer legs together. It was the march of time, the procession of death. We went up and peered at the coffins, their lids tightly sealed. I kissed the fingertips of my loose right hand and touched Robís coffin, then repeated the gesture with Lanaís. Susanne began to cry and I moved her quickly off in another direction. We walked out of the room without looking at Max and Brianna and that girl with them. We went into the reception area and I reached for a drink, handed it to Susanne and got another for myself.
People were coming out now from the parlor and there was a buzz around us. No one spoke to either of us, blaming us somehow for this accident that had robbed us all of dear friends, of family really. I was beginning to think that we had best move out, find our coats and leave this place when I felt a hand on my right shoulder. I turned to see who it was and saw that it was Freddy.
"Hello, Mr. Compton, I donít know if you remember me," she said, but my nodding stopped her quickly. She could see that I did. "And this is your wife?"
"Yes," I said and I introduced them.
"This must be so difficult for you," she said to us. "I cannot imagine what it would be like to witness such a tragedy."
"Horrible," Susanne said quietly. "Horrible," she repeated almost too loudly. I patted her on the shoulder and she moved in close to me again.
"How did you hear...?" I asked her.
"I was with Max, in London, when your call came."
"How lucky for him to have a friend nearby, then," I said.
"He was devastated, Mr. Compton. The man you see today isnít the man he was two days ago, believe me. I donít know how he had the strength to speak like that. I really donít."
"It was beautiful," Susanne said softly.
"It really was," I agreed.
"He asked me to come out and find you both. Heíd like to talk with you, inside if you donít mind. He wants a private word, I think."
I froze instantly. I hadnít been alone, or even nearly alone with Max since he was a child. And today, for some reason today he reminded me of Lainie even more than he had that other time.
"I donít think so. Itís not appropriate..."
"Please, Mr. Compton. He asked especially."
"Must I, then?" She nodded firmly and I nodded in response. Susanne was standing even more rigid than before and as I moved a step forward the heaviness she assumed stopped me dead in my tracks. I turned to her, smiled and nodded and she smiled and nodded but she still didnít move. "Please. Susanne, please." Her shoulder softened at that and I could impel her forward. Slowly we made our way through the throng, following Freddy into the ceremonial room.
The lights had been dimmed and I was aware, instantly, that the coffins had been removed. Max and Brianna were still down front, in the same seats they had taken earlier. Freddy escorted us down the aisle toward them. I think she coughed once and Max immediately turned and saw us hesitantly approaching. He was up instantly, his arms outstretched to us. Before I knew it he was holding Susanne and me and he was crying and we were crying and my arm was around his back and Susanneís was also and our hands were grasped holding him close to us, to our bosoms as they say. We were three mad adults, wailing and embracing and it was bad and it was good and something was released that hadnít been let go before.
I donít know, I really donít, how long we stood like that. But finally we were done with that stage of our reunion and we were letting each other go, loosening that hold, that age-old tie of emotions. I watched him drag the last tears from his eyes with his clenched fists, tossing them to one side, to the other side. He smiled at us, and his reddened cheeks and moist lips were somehow wrong, not the image, not the right look, but I understood them. I knew I looked the same and without glancing at my wife I knew she was a match for us.
"Vin, I wanted to say...." and he choked. I smiled. I patted him on the shoulder. "Vin, I wanted to say this to you when we were alone. I know how much you always cared about us, about my family. You were that special friend who knew us generations back and still know us. Thereís no one else whoís been there like you have. I donít think I treated you so well when I was a kid. I didnít understand then what I do now about friends, about family. Vin, you were always family."
I broke down and sobbed, right there, in front of Susanne and in front of Max and his sister and a stranger, that girl. It didnít matter if I was being an idiot. I was one of the family. I was what I had wanted to be for fifty years and I was finally there. I didnít know how to deal with that.
"We love you, Vin. Brianna and I, we love you."
"I..." There were no words. I couldnít say a thing. I turned away from him so he wouldnít see the hesitation in my face.
"Vinnie loves you like no one else, Maxie," Susanne said. I could hear her words and hear the sincerity in them. That frightened me, horrified me, really. "As long as Iíve known him heís always talked about you and about your grannie and his love for you both. If heíd had a kid, it would have been one like you, Maxie."
"Thanks, Susanne," he said. "That means a lot."
"We hope weíll see you sometime," Brianna said, a lot cooler than her brother, but she was always like that, even as a child.
"I hope so," my wife said. "Vin, we gotta go, we really do." I nodded, still not looking at Max and Brianna.
"Thanks," I said. "Thanks for being so nice." I took a step toward the door, but Max put his hands on my shoulders and easily, for there was no resistance in me any longer, turned me around to face him. "From Lainie," he said, and then he leaned into me and kissed me hard on the mouth, embracing me with his soul, that spirit he shared with the only woman who totally captured my heart and soul. I stood there unable to participate in this loving exchange. I could only see him in my mind, the way he had looked in the back seat of the cab when he was a kid and I was a predator who didnít know he was one. When he removed his hands, then his lips and stepped back I was finally released, not just from this embrace, but from the fantasy that had haunted me for so very long.
I opened my eyes. I looked at Max. I saw the man he was and there was nothing of the boy about him, nothing of Lainie either. He was a handsome man who had given me the one thing I had never had: the marble kiss of death that separates us from those beloved few who are with the Eternal. I nodded to him. It was all I could do to express this new feeling. I smiled. I smiled without any control of the smile. It felt to me like it really did go ear to ear. I took Susanneís hand and nodded at Freddy, then at Brianna and finally at Max.
"Letís go home, Susanne," I said. "My family doesnít need me right now and I need to be with you."
She smiled at me and turned and smiled at them. We went home and for the first time, ever, we made love and it was enough for both of us.