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Sunday, September 04, 2005

LIKE A STEAM LOCOMOTIVE

US Route 59 North from Houston to Livingston. 70 miles. I gave myself 2 hours for some reason, I guess because I tend to be paranoid that I'll be late to events that must start on time like weddings, movies, flights. I think I also imagined that the drive would give me time to collect whatever thoughts needed collecting before getting to the main event of my trip to Texas, the memorial. The image I had was of me driving on one of those desolate two lane highways you only see in beer commericals, smoking cigarettes with the windows down as the saguaro whizzed by and I listened to music that magically captured both the life and the death of Al. All these details would result in a comforting melancholy that would wash over me and seep deeply into my pores.

Some of this fantasy was realized, some not. I don't smoke cigarettes so that was out. It was 98° so AC with the windows up was a must. The music, carefully selected the night before and burned onto a CD in my hotel room, did actually create the desired effect. I can be a great wallower when I want and music always helps facilitate that sad, soothing feeling. And a bonus: I had accidentally included a version of "The Weight" (the one song that Al sang the lead on) that had Al joking around for a few seconds before we start playing. I hadn't heard his voice in years. Or his joke-making. Pretty nerdy, both his joke-making and my sentimental reaction to it.

I got to Onalaska a good half hour before the memorial was to start. I parked the rented Grand Marquis at an abandoned Texaco station near Lake Livingston and looked at the water till I had to get to the church. When I got there, I stepped out of the heat and into the church exactly as the service was starting. I quickly met the pastor, a woman with too much powder blue eye shadow. Another woman handed me some printed material and asked me to sign the guest book. Unexpectedly, she said, "You look familiar."

"I'm Tom, Al's friend from Massachusetts."

She looked like she didn't believe me. Maybe she was disappointed that the name didn't register. I half expected her to correct me.

I scooched into the last row. I listened to some off key singing from the forty or so other attendees. Singing off key is seemingly very important to the Lutherans.

"Who are these people?" I thought. I recognized Al's wife Carol from the one photo I had seen. Plus, I deduced it was her since she had the pole position of church – first row aisle right. But other than her, I didn't recognize anyone. Jack should have been there but wasn't. Loser.

I checked out the room. Very modest. Acoustic ceiling. White walls. Casio keyboard. And on the wall behind the pulpit, three large items. In the center a large faux stained glass depiction of Jesus in the woods kneeling at a tree stump and looking up into a beam of light from above. The Big Man's work, no doubt. To the left of that, a large banner proclaiming "Jesus is Lord." Well, duh. Even I knew that. Or rather I knew that Lutherans believe it. But the thing that I noticed most was right smack between the Jesus in the woods and the banner. Slightly skewed and about 8 feet high, projected on the wall was the instantly recognizable Microsoft Windows desktop. Obviously some sort of presentation was going to take place but I cringed at the inadvertent and unfortunate product placement. If Al had been there I would have whispered to him, "Dude, you're getting a Dell."

The service lasted about an hour. And included a lot of singing. Really bad singing. I kept thinking how Al wouldn't have approved of the rampant disregard for pitch. I didn't participate even though I had the words in front of me. I've learned over the years that when church-goers start singing, it's best to just bow my head and solemnly read along.

Al's first wife got up and told a weird story about how her daughter (from a previous marriage) was supposed to write something for the service but "just couldn't bring herself to do it," but that Al would understand. Ouch. There was the photo tribute (that's what the Microsoft projection was for) that was both insipid and touching. I was surprised and conceitedly a little pleased to see that a photo I took probably ten years ago was included. It was a black and white photo of Al fly fishing. I had made an enlargement and given it to Al. Back when I gave it to him, I never would have predicted its ultimately use, here at his memorial.

More singing. A prayer. Another prayer. Chanting? What is it with these people? Why are they talking so much about God. This isn't his gig. It's Al's. Why do they keep mentioning his cat Gator? What's with all these "signs from God" that the Lord was watching over Al. Am I in the right church?

In my mind, I stood up and said "Listen, people. Let me tell you about Al. He was a wiseass leftover hippie who liked to party and get over on people. He was a riot, he was a good musician, and he was smart as hell. That's it. As far as God mysteriously turning on CD players and choosing the music to play here today or anointment oil giving Al the stigmata, all I can say is 'Whatever.'"

That was just in my mind, though. When the hour was over and the singing was done, I was left with a room full of crying strangers. Al's sister heaved in her husband's shoulder. Carol dragged one leg in front of the other as if it took every ounce of strength she had just to leave the hall. Some guy my age who sat next to me and wept throughout the service was now slumped in the pew, the discount tissue in his hand soaked and fraying. Even the pastor's eye shadow had mixed with tears and left smears across her temples.

I felt intrusive. I felt like this memorial meant something wholly different to them than it did to me. I had had my teary moments weeks earlier, before Al died but after it became clear how his life would end. I remember one Sunday last month driving to the grocery store listening to the Grateful Dead sing,
Like a steam locomotive
Rollin' down the track
He's gone, gone
And nothin's gonna bring him back
He's gone
Tears pooled at the bottom of my eye sockets.

We mourn in our own ways. Projecting a PowerPoint presentation on a church wall while Anne Murray sings "The Old Rugged Cross" is one way. Crying in heavy traffic is another. It's the same with the people we mourn. They mean completely different things to different people. This churched-up Ned Flanders version of Al is someone I never knew. But because that's who he was when he died, or at least that's who he was to his wife, that's the Al that is honored at the end. It's almost like a game of hot potato where whoever is closest to the person who dies when the person dies gets to define that person's entire life at the memorial service.

Immediately after the service I felt extremely uncomfortable. People were sobbing left and right. It was like some sort of mourners triage out there. I thought that maybe I should introduce myself to Carol, try and offer some sort of comfort, but my instincts took over and I headed out the door with about ten others. The heat pressed around my body as my black jacket dropped off my shoulders. That's that, I thought. Done and done. I got in the Grand Marquis and headed straight for the airport.

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