I was at a funeral. It wasn’t a conventional funeral, as it was held at a nature preserve to honor his interests. They never told us exactly how he died but according to his roommate he had come home drunk that night, and we all knew about his “secret” addiction problems. An opioid, probably, was what my Dad said. His name was Charlie and he was twenty-eight.
When I first heard about the death I didn’t cry. Perhaps I subconsciously wished it away from my head, the preposterous idea that someone so full of life could be dead. But the second I walked into the small building it hit me like a bullet. The small pain I felt in my throat and eyes. The blistering urge that forced my eyes to fill up with salty water. I bit my tongue, not wanting to cry in front of so many people I knew.
Despite the odd location, it was a standard procession. People told stories of him through shaking voices while others hid their tears from people doing the same. Their eyes were stained red as they attempted to stay strong for the ones they thought needed it. A sea of dark clothes swirled around the room as the mourners tried to drown their sorrows in the tray of cakes and cookies. My eyes caught Charlie’s mother, my great aunt, from across the room. Her face blushed a desaturated shade of scarlet and her eyes were watering, getting ready to let loose all of the pent-up emotion. Her posture was straight as if she was attempting to make a good impression on someone. There was a half-empty box of tissues behind her and she had let her usually buzz cut hair grow out in the few weeks of planning for this day, the wispy tufts of hair sticking out from the back of her head. She grabbed everyone who walked near her, pulling them close as if cherishing every moment she had left with them. Maybe she had learned.
Charlie’s brother didn’t take his sunglasses off for nearly the entire time, they covered his red face from his loving family. He looked disheveled like he had simply grabbed whatever was on the floor and put it on. A black V-neck shirt and cargo pants fit loosely under a tattered looking sweatshirt, his hair was put up in a rough attempt to look nicer. He dealt with the same addictive problem as his older brother. The funeral was no doubt a rude awakening to what his life might become. I caught him as he was leaving for a break from the tense environment, he greeted me in a rough, sandpapered voice that was trying its best not to shake and break down.
“Hey,” I said, pulling him into a hug, “It’s good seeing you.”
“Y-yeah,” He didn't look me in the eye, “good to see you guys.” His voice got softer and less discernible as the interaction went on.
Nobody knew what to say to me. My brothers and I were stuck in the middle of two age groups. The adults didn’t think that we were ready for precious memory recounting, but they knew we had a concept of life and death, unlike the dozen or so toddlers running around and underneath the tables. They settled for a simple “how’s school?” The choice phrase for adults who don’t know how to talk to younger people.
I hated it, however, the setting of this particular funeral was a blessing today. In order to flee the tense environment, I used the setting to my advantage, grabbing my coat and my hat and setting out for a quick walk to clear my head. It was eerily beautiful. The clouds above blocked the sun and all of the plants were gray and bare. It was freezing, frigid, but because of a heat streak a few weeks earlier, the dead ground was exposed, without a blanket of snow to cover it. The frozen chunks of brown grass crunched beneath my feet as I stepped out away from the crowded banquet. I gazed out into the frozen lake, smooth and clear like glass where a few parents had taken their kids outside and were letting them run around on the thick ice. I stepped out onto the icy layer above the lake and followed the thick cracks, leading down to the water below. It amazed me how the strength of the ice wasn’t affected at all by the harsh lines dragged through it. However, I knew that in due time those cracks would get larger, and the ice would get thinner, and those cracks would eventually bring the downfall of the ice, causing it to melt out of existence in the water below.
I shoved my hands further into my pockets and watched as my breath solidified in the air, leaving a small trail of smokey, white mist from my mouth. I felt the wind nip at my face, but by now I was too far in thought to even notice. He was twenty-eight years old. There was so much that he hadn’t experienced. He hadn’t been able to get clean, despite desperately wanting to. Never got married, never had kids, never got his driver's license back, was never able to reclaim the life he threw away unknowingly. Maybe it was the fact that his sister had read an excerpt from the journal he had left behind, saying “I could live off of a beer and a lip of tobacco, but I wish I could live off of less.” Maybe it was the fact that his roommate had told stories of them desperately trying to get themselves clean. Maybe it was the fact that my Dad had already reduced his life into an anti-drug PSA. Whatever it was, I felt the urge to cry again. The drops of liquid streamed down my face, finally free from prying eyes.
It horrified me how quickly life could be taken away. The last time I had seen him, he was full of laughter during a Thanksgiving family gathering, loud and joking about how awful he looks in photos. He had greeted everyone with a quick hug and a “Hey, how’s it going?” He was able to strike up a conversation with anyone. With my little brother and cousin, he’d joke about them pretending to be soldiers and even play along. He was able to talk to me about stressing over pointless things, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about deeper topics. He could talk to my dad and my uncles about hunting and work. He was always interested in whatever anyone had to say. Every word that poured out of our mouths was taken in by his eager ears. He wasn’t an adult who fell victim to the “So so how’s school” pitfall. He gave everyone an equal chance to speak and share their ideas. He was always warm and inviting, his laugh always full of life.
Today he was cold and lifeless, the shine drained from his eyes forever. Twenty-eight, twenty-eight, twenty-eight, twenty-eight, twenty-eight. I had gone over the word so many times that it hardly meant anything to me. The conversations that I had overheard earlier flooded my mind, “He was always ready to help.” “He’d give you the shirt on his back if you needed it.” He was a saint according to everyone. He tried to keep his struggles hidden from the world around him as he attempted to fix them. I had heard that it only took one summer for him to quickly relapse into his old ways.
That one summer cost him his life. That one summer took it all away. That one choice lead to a life that wasn’t near as long as it should’ve been. One choice and he was reduced to a simple anti-drug PSA memory. One choice changed the course of his life. It caused him to go to the bar, take the drug and stumble back to his home. His home which was a haven for all of the people to whom he had extended his generosity and lent them a place for the night. The home where he fell asleep and was found by his roommate, never to wake up again.