Memoir: A Wake by Leslie Edwards
by Leslie Edwards
A friend of mine died. His heart simply stopped and he was dead before he hit the floor.
Cliff was not a young man — he was 62 years old and had spent many years drinking too much booze and smoking too many Camels. Still, he was a lovely, caring human being – softspoken and always smiling pleasantly. He owned a bar here in San Francisco called The Expansion — a dark, ancient bar filled with alcoholic eccentrics and misfits who have made this their sanctuary for the last 40 years.
I literally stumbled across it years ago, pulled up a stool, and didn’t leave. It was a safe place where everyone talked to everyone, or yelled at everyone – a place where people acted themselves. No hip, black clothes. No blank stares. No contrived sneers. No bands. No Haight Ashbury pretensions. These people didn’t judge me or rate me like people my own age. And so I left people my own age for them. For a bunch of old, cantankerous, sweet, funny, serious, smart and stupid drunks who accepted me, cared about me and genuinely liked me under any circumstances.
A few years ago, a reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine noticed this almost invisible hole-in-the-wall and wrote it up in an article about the best bars to go to as “Home of the true alcoholic”. Cliff was so proud of that. It hangs framed on the wall unashamed and admired.
What wasn’t in that article was the generosity of spirit that lit up that dark little hovel. Cliff helped anyone who needed help. There was this one old lady named Marilyn who once attacked the juke box with her walker because she didn’t like the song that was playing. A frightening, frail, little woman with a vicious, truth-piercing tongue of a caliber I had never before witnessed. I fell victim to it once when I tried to sit next to her and chat. Stupid me. Then one day I whispered a really filthy joke in her ear. She loved it and was kind to me thereafter, even inviting me to sit next to her when she was in the mood. One day she fell in her home. It was Cliff who took notice of the fact that she had not been into the bar in a few days and became concerned. He went to her home where he found her unconscious. He rushed her to the hospital. When she was ready to be released, the hospital asked him and his wife, Betty, if her family could come get her. She had no family, she said. Cliff and Betty took her home. Years later, she stills lives in their home.
Many years ago, as a girl of 21 carrying around a giant sack of issues that I really had no business having, I sat in his bar for hours complaining that I couldn’t find a job — as I sipped on my sixth scotch and water. I found $20 in my jacket pocket when I got home. He was worried for me. The next day, my effusive splutterings of gratitude made him visibly embarrassed, but I knew that it genuinely made him happy to help me.
Two years later, my aunt died and left my family a little cottage on Cape Cod. Drifting around San Francisco with my only occupation being extremely popular as the youngest drunk at The Expansion — my parents suggested I move away to the Cape.
And so I did.
A year later, in the middle of winter, having lost my job and living in the cold loneliness of a small town of people who thought I was very weird, I called up the bar one night, crying drunkenly and shouting with happiness to talk to all these old — and I really mean old — friends of mine. One week later, I received an airplane ticket from Cliff. He had taken a collection — and then used the rest of his own money — to fly me back to San Francisco, telling me that I should come back and return to college.
OK, I said. I promise.
I came back. And I broke my promise.
I never paid him back the money and I did not return to college.
One day, I stopped going to the bar — which was good — but I never said anything. I simply disappeared and started taking golf lessons and drinking fruit smoothies. How could I tell them that?
Two years later, a friend of mine called and told me that Cliff had died that morning. The wake was scheduled for the following day from morning until 8:00 at night.
I’m not that old – in my thirties. Old enough to have known a few dead people, but not so close as to have been formally invited to the funeral (I don’t attend funerals unless I’ve been formally invited. That’s my rule). Not that any specific age defines when one is to become intimately familiar with death — people my age lose family members and friends all the time — but I have been one of the boring, middle-of-the-road fortunates who so far has only suffered from the fear of that inevitability.
And here it was. I was formally invited.
As the hours passed at work I became more and more stressed out. So reluctant was I to go see Cliff-as-dead-body — that every time I sniffled, I hoped I was sick — too sick to go. But it always turned out to be just a need to sniffle a little at that moment. And then, of course, I felt guilty wishing I was unhealthy because, after all, if I should have learned anything from Cliff’s death it’s that your health is all you really have.
I really needed to talk about it. I told my boss.
Boss, I said, my friend died and after work I have to go look at his dead body and I’m scared.
My boss, Kay, was very sympathetic about it as she had been through it herself before.
Why do they have to do it this way? I asked. Why can’t they just do this without the body being there?
Leslie, she said, I think people do that because it’s your chance to really say goodbye. And you won’t be scared when you see his body. You’ll realize he’s not even in it.
What if I have to kiss him? I wondered aloud in terror.
Kay laughed. Sorry, she said, I know it’s not funny. This is your friend.
But I had laughed too at that moment. In spite of my deep sadness at the loss of this dear friend, and in spite of the reality of these fears. Perhaps that is why I laughed. It was all so very uncomfortable. But it wasn’t a lack of reverence that the images in my head were so ridiculously comical. Images of Cliff’s painted mouth smiling like the Joker only for me to see. Images of Cliff winking at me and I freak out in the church, screaming and pointing and ruining the wake for his suffering family. It was real fear for a real thing mixed with the real childhood fears you have about impossible things — like your doll coming to life, or a monster grabbing at your toes as you crawl into bed.
I continued my litany of terrors to my boss. It was ridiculous. You’d think I was a seven year old.
But isn’t kissing them on the forehead what they do at these things? What do I know? We would never put our dead bodies on display in my family. I would feel really weird being dead and everyone looking at me.
You wouldn’t notice, Leslie — you would be dead, Kay said.
Yeah, well….I still wouldn’t want it to happen.
But this was Cliff’s moment, not mine, and I wanted to do the right thing in the right way.
My friends and I met before the wake at the Expansion to have a drink — to nod at his empty place behind the bar and calm our insides a bit before the occasion. We were all very somber with our first, quiet, reverential sips as we made our toast to Cliff. In fact, we were all a little ill at ease with each other, in spite of the fact that we had known each other in our debauchery in a multitude of humiliating and ecstatic ways for years. We knew how to be uproariously joyous — while drunk around each other. We could be over-the-top irrational and verbally abusive in public — while drunk around each other. We could be quiet and darkly moody — while drunk around each other. We could be sober — but about to be drunk around each other. I don’t think that after all these years we could share this collective sense of sadness and fear without the glue of liquor to bind us together.
After awhile we left the bar together and walked up the street towards the mortuary, which was just one block up. My feet were heavy and my breath uneven as we got closer. I just stared straight ahead, trying not to think. Just to get there. I walked up the two stone stairs to the open door, where we were greeted by what had to be a cartoon character. I don’t want to be unfair by surmising just what kind of person you have to be to open up your own funeral parlor, but I can’t help it. This man was the poster boy for morticians. The perfect stereotype — gaunt, face drawn and withered, his greeting low and quiet and strangely disagreeable.
I stepped into the lobby and took a few seconds to get my bearings and take a few deep breaths. Far off, through the double oak doors, down the red carpet, passed all the pews, perfectly centered in front of the cross, was the shiny, enameled casket. With the cover open. My eyes just glossed over this, trying to suppress the visual information in my head, but it was too late. My stomach lurched and my ears buzzed nauseously, usually a precursor to a big, embarrassing, public faint. Something I have been known to do on occasion when I’m feeling claustrophobic. I snapped myself on the wrist and walked over to the guest book where I hovered territorially for several minutes, deeply engrossed in the two signatures on this particular open page. I read them over and over until they became a mantra in my head. Finally, my friend touched my elbow and motioned for me to join them.
A woman was sitting on a bench near the doorway to the chapel and she nodded and smiled at me. I don’t know why, but I was a little rude to her. I had never seen her before and for a moment I felt possessive of Cliff, like, who was she smiling and nodding at me in my grief as if I could spare a moment to acknowledge a complete stranger? I don’t remember walking — it seems like I was floating, like I was being gently pulled towards the casket, arm in arm with my friend, until we reached his grieving wife who I hugged tightly and offered my deepest, most sincere condolences. Betty cried and talked about her disbelief and her pain. My eyes filled with tears for her. This was so terrible. So awful. I didn’t look into the casket. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t look yet. Between Betty and the casket was a picture of Cliff. A picture of an alive, smiling Cliff. I looked at him in that picture and in my mind said what I wanted to say to him, which was “thank you”.
And then I turned to his body. For a second, it took my breath away. It was a shock. It bore almost no resemblance to the man in the picture, to the man in my mind. And then my shock disappeared and I felt almost relaxed. I stood over him and examined his closed eyes, his rouged cheeks and lips, his powdered, taut face that had obviously been manipulated in some way to appear pleasant. I was transfixed. I couldn’t stop staring and I knew I was behaving like a rubber-necker at a bad accident, but I couldn’t tear myself away just yet. I was pulled out of my reverie when I heard someone say, “he looks good.” I turned around to see who had said that but she was walking away. My time staring at the shell that was in the casket was over. Looking at him any longer was no longer an option without calling some embarrassing attention to myself. I went over to a pew and sat down.
Again, someone said, “He looks good.” The third time someone spoke those words I almost lost it, but I couldn’t say anything. But to myself I wondered loudly, what do you mean he looks good? He does not look good. He looks dead! He looks good and dead.
How could they be saying this? Had they not looked in the same box that I had? So I learned something new. This is what people say at funerals. They really do. It’s not just a script in a movie. People really do say that at funerals.
I looked up when a soft-spoken, friendly voice, said to me: “Thank you so much for coming to my father’s viewing. It means so much to us to see that he had so many friends. Now, what is your name and how do you know my father?”
My eyes met the eyes of the young woman who was addressing me. The same, soft, sincere eyes that Cliff had. It was the woman whom I had snubbed sitting on the bench outside the door. The stranger at the wake of the friend for whom I grieved.
I didn’t know he had children. I had never thought to ask.